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Master of the Poison Pill

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Why has President Bush placed Karl Rove atop the government's endeavors to rebuild the Gulf Coast? Rove knows as much about massive relief and reconstruction efforts as your pet schnauzer, but he's not devoid of germane expertise. He played a critical role, after all, in the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.

In the fall of 2002, as the legislation establishing the DHS was wending its way through Congress, Rove had a Rovean idea: Embed some extraneous, ideological criteria in the bill -- criteria that the Democrats would obviously oppose -- and then campaign against those Democrats for being soft on homeland security. Which is why one day the bill suddenly contained language mandating that the unionized federal employees at the agencies being merged into DHS would henceforth be non-union. Predictably, the Democrats squawked, and predictably, the Republicans took out after a southern Democratic senator up for reelection -- Georgia's Max Cleland, who'd lost an arm and both legs while fighting in Vietnam -- as indifferent to protecting our nation. Cleland was defeated.

So it's not as if Rove lacks experience in manipulating national catastrophes for the narrowest of political ends. The administration is clearly going back to Congress to seek more than $100 billion in additional appropriations for the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and Rove is certainly up to the task of crafting some poison-pill provisions that would make it difficult for Democrats to vote yes.

The only problem is that Bush has already inflicted such provisions on the relief and reconstruction efforts through a series of executive orders and departmental rulings, but to a master such as Rove, there are ways around this conundrum. Congress could still be asked to ratify the most boneheaded of Bush's diktats. That such a move might be legally redundant would be of no matter if Rove found it politically expedient.

He could start with the president's suspension of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that employees on federally funded construction projects be paid the prevailing wage -- a figure that the Labor Department calculates for particular localities. Right now, the prevailing wage that Bush's Labor Department has designated for the Gulf region averages about $9 an hour. For more highly skilled carpenters in New Orleans, the prevailing hourly wage rises to $13.75 -- which means that if a New Orleans carpenter is lucky enough to work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, he or she will have a princely pretax annual income of $27,500.

The thought that such mom-and-pop concerns as Halliburton and Bechtel would have to pay out that much money as they rebuild New Orleans's infrastructure was plainly anathema to our president, so he's freed them of that onerous requirement. Indeed, he's announced the creation of a vast Gulf Opportunity Zone, in which all the laissez-faire Republican brainstorms of the past quarter century that were supposed to end the cycles of poverty and dependency, and have accomplished nothing of the kind, have been repackaged yet again. Small businesses will be freed from tax burdens and regulations and maybe even wage requirements, and an entrepreneurial culture will burst forth.

Problem is, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta have been designated enterprise zones for a decade now, and they're still just about the poorest places in the United States. Right-wingers have railed for 40 years now at the failures, real and imagined, of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, but Johnson's policies, and those of Franklin Roosevelt before him, have been far more successful at reducing poverty than those that presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush promoted during their terms in office. Indeed, poverty has risen steadily during the current Bush's presidency, and median household income has declined for each of the past five years, though for the past three years the economy has been in recovery. Wage increases have become a historical curio, the federal minimum wage has not been raised for the past eight years, and now Bush has decreed that the men and women working on the levees -- not the executives or shareholders at Halliburton, mind you, just the folks doing the work -- will have to make do with less.

Could the suspension of Davis-Bacon pass Congress as a stand-alone piece of legislation? Not likely. But the Rove model is to embed such lulus in the overall appropriation bill, forbid any amendments and attack any Democrats who cry foul. It will probably be harder to pull off this ploy the second time around, but give credit where credit is due: The Bush White House may not be remembered for promoting the general welfare or ensuring domestic tranquility, but when it comes to attacking the Democrats, its page in history is secure.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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