Louisiana Backlash

President Bush’s visit to Katrina-ravaged Louisiana Wednesday follows six months of bungling that threatens political catastrophe for the state’s Republicans. He will boost his belated $4.2 billion plan finally to provide housing for people made homeless by the storm, but it may be too little, too late. The government’s post-hurricane performance has been a mess, and Republicans get the blame.

Rep. Richard Baker, a 10-term conservative Republican congressman from Baton Rouge with a 91 percent pro-Bush voting record, sat down with me in his Capitol Hill office last week to talk politics frankly: "The backlash is unknowable, but it is a big concern. When we go from a Republican White House to a Republican Congress to a Republican Senate to a majority of Republicans in the state congressional delegation, we are viewed as in charge. We are being measured by this storm response and by what Republicans do to help poor people."

That bleak assessment turns on its head simplistic analysis following Katrina that predicted evacuation of Democratic-voting African-Americans to the far corners of the nation would turn Louisiana into a deep red Republican state. On the contrary, the performance of the last six months may return the state to Democratic blue. Quite apart from who was at fault for an inadequate immediate response to the storm, Republicans are blamed for what has happened since then.

Baker expressed "great frustration" to me about the $27 billion in federal funds actually spent (well below the widely mentioned $85 billion figure). He said he "abhorred" 12 percent administrative expenses incurred by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Of the $27 billion, nothing has been spent on housing. "We have thousands of acres of homes just standing in ruins, and the pace with which that cleanup is going is bitterly frustrating," Baker said.

In his frustration, Baker proposed a new federal entity (the Louisiana Recovery Corp.) to finance redevelopment of devastated areas. While Baker got it through the House Financial Services Committee by a 50 to 9 vote, the White House killed it on grounds it would impede local initiative. Prominent Louisianans then were ready to write off the Bush administration as hopeless. The first sign of flexibility was flashed Feb. 14 when the $4.2 billion package was unveiled.

Will it save Republicans from the consequences of six months of inaction and incompetence? The reported minimum cost of the notorious trailers as temporary housing is $60,000 per unit, enough to build permanent modular housing. "We would have been better off," Baker told me, "if we’d had a contract with Wal-Mart, where you could have gone in and bought 100,000 emergency response packages, with bottled water and Pop-Tarts."

The latest governmental outrage concerns the pending $4.2 billion in Katrina supplemental appropriations, which includes a "hazard mitigation" program. A homeowner with a damaged residence from Katrina would be offered a generous cash payment, with the stipulation that no replacement home — or any other structure — could be built on this supposedly flood-vulnerable land. When an outraged Baker asked the administration’s view of this anti-development caveat, he said he received this answer: "Well, we think this would make the appropriation a little more palatable to members of Congress."

In an opaque administration, it is not clear who makes such decisions. It is presumed nothing is decided in the White House without the knowledge of senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, but he has handed off all congressional distress calls to National Economic Council Director Al Hubbard. The complaining lawmakers have not received much satisfaction from Hubbard, but he was vigorously involved in drafting the new housing plan.

In the eyes of distressed Louisianans, nobody seems to be making decisions. That’s bad news for Richard Baker. Anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 flood evacuees have moved into Baker’s Baton Rouge district, where his largest margin of victory in contested races has been 6,000 votes. "If I’m viewed as part of the problem by those people who have lost everything," he said, "the political consequences of that are pretty clear." The question is whether that will be clear to George W. Bush when he arrives in New Orleans Wednesday.