Hurricane Katrina reminds us why it is necessary to have a strong, accountable federal government. In a time of crisis we need a unified, coordinated and effective response. To accomplish this, the federal government must exert leadership and be prepared to act. Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated — as no sloganeering about the role of government could — the dangers of assuming that smaller government is always better, or that federal responsibilities should be shifted to others. As Katrina has shown, when the federal government refuses to shoulder its responsibilities and chooses instead to pass the buck, lives are put at risk and chaos ensues.
There are big issues to examine in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why has it been acceptable to provide tax breaks primarily for the richest in our society when basic human needs have gone unmet for so many? There have been so many tax breaks over the past five years that to many it has simply become routine. Yet there are consequences. The tax cuts lead to higher deficits and the result, as we have witnessed in New Orleans, is inadequate funding of programs addressing the large-scale problems we expect our government to tackle for us, such as infrastructure improvements and services for basic human needs. For example, it has been known for some time that the levees in New Orleans could not withstand a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude. In fact, they needed maintenance work to hold in the face of even lesser storms. Yet we pinched pennies to support unproven supply side economic theory, giving tax breaks when spending could have saved lives. And what money was available was spent on misplaced priorities. The consequences, as we now know, are unacceptable.
Yet despite the evidence Hurricane Katrina brings, there are some in Congress considering more fiscal folly: a temporary repeal of the gasoline tax (which protects the country’s roads and bridges — essential for a smooth evacuation in any future crisis); a vote to repeal the estate tax (which provides incentives for charitable contributions to nonprofits like the Red Cross and others providing critical relief to Hurricane Katrina’s victims); and the possibility of additional cuts in basic life-supports like food stamps, Medicaid, and student loans. These are some of the very programs victims of Hurricane Katrina and the communities that take them in will have to rely upon in the months ahead. Sound, equitable fiscal policies would dictate that these programs be expanded, not cut. And to pay for them, the tax cuts that have largely benefited the wealthiest in our society should be undone. It’s time for shared sacrifice.
One shocking element about the events unfolding as a result of Hurricane Katrina is that few people, if any, have accurate, up-to-date, life-saving information. With a toxic stew roiling through the streets of New Orleans, the public’s right to know about dangerous chemicals in their communities and the present dangers of large scale commercial coastal development becomes ever more important. Thousands of facilities in the Gulf Coast area — ranging from gas stations to oil refiners to large petrochemical plants — were buffeted by Hurricane Katrina and many may be leaking into the floodwaters, but there is little information available about these facilities. Every community has dangers and knowledge about them can help us prevent disasters and react more quickly and properly when disasters strike. The federal government should take affirmative steps to insure that emergency responders and the public know about dangers in New Orleans and in all of our communities and require that companies make responsible efforts to minimize these dangers.
Underlying all the Gulf Coast devastation is a shocking injustice that must be addressed: a disproportionate number of poor and people of color were affected, reflecting broader and persistent societal inequities. The issue is not new, it has just been ignored. Some would argue we have been losing ground on this front for years. Here, too, there is a positive role the federal government can play, yet little leadership or political will is in place for that to occur. Ronald Reagan once quipped, “My friends, some years ago the federal government declared war on poverty — and poverty won.” As Hurricane Katrina has made so clear, this is no laughing matter; it is time the fight be taken up once again.
Determining what went wrong in New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf surely will be complex; a veritable labyrinth of local, state and federal actions — or inactions — is in play. As the toxic stew of flood waters recedes and assistance accelerates in aiding the people affected by Hurricane Katrina, Congress is beginning to look at what went so terribly wrong in responding to the crisis. That process must be independent of politics, as was the 9/11 Commission, and it must be open and accountable.
But we call on Congress to go beyond investigation and recommendations for fixes to the Gulf Coast disaster. Now is the time to move beyond ideology and realign our national priorities. True leadership requires action: enact responsible policies and budgets to support the safety and productivity of all Americans, not just in the aftermath of this storm, but over the long haul, no matter their race or status.
GARY BASS is executive director of OMB Watch.