In the Floods, Parties' Agendas Surface

President Bush signed the first bill providing relief aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 2. He signed a second one on Thursday.
President Bush signed the first bill providing relief aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 2. He signed a second one on Thursday. (By Paul Morse -- White House Via Getty Images)

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By Jonathan Weisman and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 10, 2005

After the political tidal wave of 1994 swept conservatives into control of Congress, Republicans doggedly tried -- and repeatedly failed -- to repeal a Depression-era law that requires federal contractors to pay workers the prevailing wages in their communities. Eleven days after the deluge of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush banished the requirement, at least temporarily, with the stroke of his pen.

The president's suspension of the Davis-Bacon rules on wages is one example of the many avenues the disaster has opened for the administration and lawmakers of both political parties to incorporate long-held -- and normally polarizing -- policy goals into the huge federal aid racing to the Gulf Coast.

Federal procurement agents are using the outpouring of federal largess -- $62 billion so far -- to ease quotas for minority and small businesses in government contracts. Republicans are trying to revive, for schoolchildren displaced in the disaster, their frustrated efforts to create government vouchers for private schools. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to use the emergency to expand Medicaid health insurance for low-income families and to reverse some tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress.

Taken together, the efforts have the potential to alter domestic policy in a way that parallels the reshaping of realms such as military intervention and civil liberties after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

With a weakened president, a Republican Party eager to demonstrate concern for the disadvantaged and a Democratic Party accused of obstructionism, the horse-trading will only intensify, said Paul C. Light, who specializes in governmental organization at New York University. "If you're seeing it now, when Congress was on vacation and hadn't had much time to think about it, imagine what you'll see in six weeks when they've had time to sit down and work on it," Light said.

Already, Katrina's wind and water have ushered in two significant changes, a suspension of wage supports and a relaxation of government contracting rules.

The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act was passed, in part, by segregationists hoping to stem the tide of blacks into the cities, but since then the law has been cherished by labor unions -- and despised by many Republicans. President George H.W. Bush suspended the wage rules in late 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, only to see them reinstated weeks later by incoming President Bill Clinton. Republicans tried to repeal it outright in the budget battles of 1995. As recently as last year, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) tried again.

On Wednesday, when White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten briefed House Republicans on the president's latest supplemental spending request, conservative lawmakers urged him to lift the wage rules. Bush did so the following day, through an executive order that applies to all construction projects -- related to the storm or not -- in Louisiana, hard-hit sections of Mississippi and Alabama, and South Florida's urban counties of Miami-Dade and Broward. "Lots of people in Louisiana are willing to go to work tomorrow, and the market will set the wage," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.).

In another gain for the administration, a $51.8 billion relief bill that Congress passed on Thursday included a significant change to federal contracting regulations. Holders of government-issued credit cards will be allowed to spend up to $250,000 on Katrina-related contracts and purchases, without requiring them to seek competitive bids or to patronize small businesses or companies owned by minorities and women. Before Thursday, only purchases of up to $2,500 in normal circumstances or $15,000 in emergencies were exempt.

"The provision in the supplemental is intended to cut red tape for contracts less than $250,000 and get food, water and housing to the victims as soon as possible. We are certain that small businesses -- particularly ones located in the affected region -- will play a critical role in the disaster relief effort," said David Safavian, administrator of the White House's Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

While acknowledging that the White House's main goal is to accelerate the flow of aid, Democratic aides said the changes to procurement rules had been sought by government procurement agents for years without success, until now.

Sensing an opening, Republican leaders have also begun to lobby the White House to resume the drive for vouchers that would allow government money to be used at private and parochial schools, a battle that Republicans waged and lost during the debate over the No Child Left Behind education law of 2001. "If we make the decision that federal money will follow the child, we should make it a voucher. That's a Republican principle," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).


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