A Windfall Of a Hurricane

By Leonard Fein

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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The staggering incompetence of this administration, which would not be quite so damaging were it not coupled with its wrongheadedness, has at last begun to register with the American people. The ratings of the president on a whole variety of measures, including assessment of how well he is performing and his basic trustworthiness, have tumbled; it is doubtful they can be restored. But that is not, as it turns out, an occasion for relief. Our national nightmare is not yet over.

In the medium term, it is not over because the Democrats are very far from having their own act together. And in the short term, it is not over because the single-minded opportunism of the administration goes on apace, now enhanced and enriched by the huge budget allocations for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Opportunism would seem to have trumped security in the run-up to Katrina and in its mishandled aftermath. Consider: Normally, companies hired by the federal government (such as those that will be doing the actual work of reconstruction) and that have more than 50 employees working on contracts for more than $50,000 are required to file an affirmative action plan covering women, Vietnam veterans, minorities and the disabled. But on September 9, less than two weeks after Katrina’s eye made landfall, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it was temporarily suspending the affirmative action requirement for first-time government contractors engaged in Katrina-related reconstruction. (This administration has opposed affirmative action at every opportunity.)

A few days later, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a $1.9 billion aid package for kindergartners through 12th-graders whose schools were ruined by Katrina. Of the total, $488 million was to be set aside for private school tuition, in recognition of the unusually high proportion of New Orleans children who had attended Catholic schools.

It turns out that the aid is not going to the new host schools of the affected children, nor is it restricted to children who were already enrolled in private schools. Instead, aid will be awarded in the form of vouchers for as much as $7,500 to any displaced family that prefers an alternative to public schools. (The administration has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a voucher program through Congress since 2001.)

These are but two illustrations of the administration’s determination to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There’s an effort to permit the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund directly those religious organizations helping hurricane survivors; there are no bid contracts; there is much talk on the relevant Web sites of the “lucrative” possibilities that stem from the $62 billion already approved by Congress for the emergency and reconstruction efforts and from the $100 billion more that is anticipated in the next few years.

Most famously, there is the president’s waiver of the David-Bacon Act. David-Bacon has been the law of the land since 1931. Essentially, it holds that employers who have contracts financed by the federal government must pay their workers on such projects “the locally prevailing wage.”

The original legislation, passed during the Hoover administration, took four years to win congressional approval and was backed by unions seeking to exclude African Americans. Without such legislation, contractors in, say, New York could bring Southern blacks to work on their projects at substantially lower wages than local workers, and especially unionized workers, would have to be paid. The law was amended soon after passage, in 1935, and the Department of Labor ruled that “prevailing wages” would mean union scale in any area where at least 30% of construction workers were unionized.

The law has long been actively opposed by conservatives, who argue that it introduces an artificial standard into the free market economy. Labor costs, the argument goes, should be determined by the market. Both in 1996 and in 2000, the Republican Party platform called for revisions to Davis-Bacon.

Unions by and large no longer discriminate. And in many communities, despite the decline of unions, local law requires that construction projects be awarded only to unionized employers. Davis-Bacon, however, allows the president to suspend the prevailing wage requirement if he determines that a national emergency exists.

Needless to say, that is what this president has done. So workers in the affected areas will, presumably, be hired at less than the $9 an hour that is the prevailing wage in the Gulf area. Working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks at $9 an hour, you end up at $18,000 for the year. You’re luckier if you’re a skilled carpenter; you earn $13.75 an hour, or $27,500 for the year. Still too high for the government, apparently.

So the job of rebuilding New Orleans may end up not paying more than the minimum wage — which hasn’t been raised for eight years — but that’s the way it goes, and the consolation is that Bechtel and Halliburton will make out just fine. And that’s how we combat poverty in the good old U.S. of A.

Do not suppose that it’s the drain of our war in Iraq that has prevented this administration from tackling the scandal of poverty here at home, that inhibited it from making the kind of preparations that might have softened Katrina’s effect. The administration lacks a poverty program and seems quite uninterested in developing one. It has a how-to-help-the-rich-get-richer program and a how-to-find-sweet-jobs-for-your-friends program — such as for Michael Brown, until just recently the absurdly unqualified head of FEMA — but poverty? Why, that would increase the deficit, don’t you know?

And the citizens, newly aroused? Maybe. I fear, still, that the wonderful outpouring of sympathy and help, of money and volunteers, is only a spasm, that without leadership it will soon pass. I pray that I am wrong.

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