Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Asking Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (NH) about New Orleans

This past weekend, I attended the College Democrats of New Hampshire’s second annual convention. One of our guest speakers was the newly-elected Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH). After a brief speech, she took several questions. When she called on me, I said, “Every agency involved with Katrina recovery is screwing up as badly today as they did immediately after the storm; of 120,000 people eligible for rebuilding assistance, not even 10% have gotten a dime. What has Congress done in the past few months to address this issue, and what is it going to do?”

Surprisingly, I was disappointed in her answer, which I will detail below, along with the three problems I have with it (as well as my hope for Rep. Shea-Porter’s future answer). I call this a surprise because shortly after the storm, Rep. Shea-Porter traveled to the Gulf Coast and spent six weeks volunteering on relief efforts.

The three parts to Rep. Shea-Porter’s answer:
1. “We’ve poured more money in, which was missing.”
2. Many of the problems are Executive Branch mistakes, and there’s nothing the Legislative Branch can do about that, but we can fix things by electing a Democrat in 2008. (2008 was her answer to a lot of things.)
3. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA) is thrilled to now be in the majority and have more Democrats working on this issue for him. (Melancon represents much of the area west, south, and east of New Orleans, including the hard-hit Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes.)

Obviously, number 3 is what it is, but I do have problems with the first two parts of her answer, and an overall complaint, as well. As far as money goes, while I am glad Congress is pumping more money into Katrina recovery, a lack of money was not an urgent problem before, despite the Congresswoman’s assertion otherwise. The problem so far has been red tape. The needed money is there, it’s just getting tangled up in bureaucracy. While some programs will need more money long-term, like levee repair and wetlands preservation, current financial needs have already been met. Allocate more all you want, it won’t do any good if you don’t take the necessary steps to get it to the people who need it. Take the Road Home Program (the housing numbers I mentioned above). The program has billions and billions of dollars available to it, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state of Louisiana, and the private contractor ICF International aren’t doing their job with that money – and that’s just one example.

That brings me to the second part of Rep. Shea-Porter’s answer. While it is true that most of the problem lies with the Louisiana state government or the Executive Branch, Congress can still take action. One of the things Democrats pledged when they gained power last year was more oversight, and the House can most certainly hold hearings to explore failures at HUD. Why isn’t HUD exercising more control of its money? Why isn’t HUD demanding more accountability from Louisiana? Investigate FEMA, investigate the Corps of Engineers, appoint a 9/11-style commission to probe the levee failures and make recommendations. The fact that it’s the President’s people who are making the mistakes doesn’t mean Congress should just throw up its collective hands and wait for 2008. I voted Democratic for just that reason – oversight hearings and subpoenas have disappeared from DC for the last twelve years. We’ve seen that change on Iraq and the U.S. Attorney scandal, let’s see it change for Katrina, too.

There was one other problem with Rep. Shea-Porter’s answers: she did not give me any specifics. She did say some legislation has been passed and that more will follow, and she mentioned that money is being pumped into the problem, but she didn’t detail any of that legislation or give me specifics about that money. It’s possible she was just trying to keep her answer short or didn’t want to bore the audience, but nevertheless, I still would have liked to hear her detail the Stafford Act waiver and other pending legislation.

I have other criticisms of Rep. Shea-Porter, although if I lived in her district, I would have voted for her in the general election. I certainly tip my hat to her for her initial volunteer stint, and I’m encouraged by the fact that she’s headed back to New Orleans with other Congressmen in a few weeks. Perhaps this second trip will show her the real problems, and reinvigorate her on this issue. I’m also pleased she thanked me for caring about this issue, something she didn’t say to those who asked her about Iraq, gun control, foreign alliances, or other issues – that does show she knows this is an important but neglected issue. It’s a good start, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for more.

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