No Stimulus Money Will Go Toward Katrina Recovery
And there's no outrage about it.
Democrats who routinely criticized President George W. Bush for not sending more money to the Gulf Coast appear to be giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in his first major spending initiative. Even the Gulf's fiercest advocates say they're happy with the stimulus package, and their states have enough money for now to address their needs.
"I'm not saying there won't be a need in the future, but right now the focus is not on more money, it's on using what we have," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has criticized Democrats and Republicans alike over Katrina funding.
It's a significant change in tone from the Bush years, when any perceived slight of Katrina victims was met with charges that the Republican president who bungled the initial response to the disaster continued to callously ignore the Gulf's needs years later.
Just last summer, Democrats accused Bush of putting Iraq before New Orleans when he sought to block Gulf Coast reconstruction money from a $162 billion war spending bill. Bush was pilloried for not mentioning the disaster in back-to-back State of the Union addresses.
Former Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who helped lead the fight for Gulf aid before retiring last year, said he was surprised by the lack of Katrina money in the bill, but figures lawmakers may be granting Obama leniency due to the magnitude of the country's current economic challenges.
"Any new president is going to have a little honeymoon," said McCrery, who is now a lobbyist. "I'd like to think that the tone would have been the same with any new president."
Thomas Langston, a Tulane University political scientist, said Democrats may be "playing nice" to keep in good favor. But dire needs remain, he said.
"Hopefully they've gotten some promises behind the scenes about longer-term commitments," Langston said. "Like most people down here, I would hate for anybody to get the impression that, 'We're good, thank you.'"
Katrina was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and $41 billion in property damage. Critics say the Gulf Coast remains vulnerable to similar devastation without significantly strengthened levees and other flood controls.
The federal government has devoted more than $175 billion to the region since Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005, and billions remain unspent. It's unclear how much more money will be needed, but nearly everyone agrees the federal government should continue investing heavily in the region's levees and other infrastructure to prevent a repeat of Katrina's devastation.
Under the $787 billion stimulus bill, states will share more than $90 billion in infrastructure money. Gulf states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can use their funds for Katrina-related projects, but they'll get the same formula-based share that other states receive.
There was hardly a complaint as Obama and other Democratic leaders pieced together the package. Members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, who have called Bush's Katrina funding a moral failure, said they were thrilled with the stimulus bill. Landrieu won several provisions that do not allocate new money but are aimed at cutting through red tape to free up existing funds.
"I think people looked at how generous Congress has been in the past," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. "(The states) have to demonstrate that they can be good custodians of the money."
Thompson and others say new funding wasn't necessary in the stimulus largely because billions of federal dollars remain bogged down in bureaucracy or tied up in planning. As a result, they said, Katrina funding doesn't fit with the quick-spending purpose of the stimulus bill, which is aimed at kick-starting the economy.
Ironically, Bush made similar arguments in recent years as Gulf advocates latched onto nearly any legislation they could find to pursue reconstruction money. For example, he routinely argued that Katrina funding didn't belong in war spending bills and that new funding wasn't urgent because unspent billions were already in the pipeline.
In part, the lack of criticism this year could reflect a stronger trust by fellow Democrats that Obama will follow through with his campaign pledge to rebuild levees and "keep the broken promises" to the Gulf.
Whether the grace period continues could hinge on how Obama addresses the issue in future spending bills.
Without discussing specific funding plans, White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said Obama is "dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and looks forward to working with Congress to ensure they get the help they so desperately need."