Gunning for the Poor

Harold Myerson, The Washington Post, October 19, 2005

Congress is back in session, and it's gunning for the American poor.

A revolt of House conservatives has persuaded that body's Republican leadership to offset the increased federal spending going to rebuild the Hurricane Katrina-devastated Gulf Coast by reductions in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for the indigent. If things go according to plan, this week the House will begin to cut $50 billion from those efforts.

The emerging Republican response to Katrina, apparently, is to comfort the drenched poor and afflict the dry.

For a moment last week, it looked as though the Republicans were going to enact across-the-board spending cuts.

That, however, would have meant less money for defense contractors and the highway industry and other contributors to congressional Republicans' campaigns. GOP committee chairmen made that point so forcefully that the idea was scrapped.

The beauty of taking the cuts out of Medicaid and student loan programs, by happy contrast, is that it doesn't reduce the flow of funds to the Republican campaign committees by a single dime.

Even before the right-wing House leadership capitulated to the even further right-wing House rank-and-file, the government's response to Katrina already appeared to be driven more by laissez-faire ideology than by need or common sense. The administration has opposed efforts by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley to extend Medicaid coverage to those Katrina survivors who lost their jobs and health insurance in the flood. And by suspending the requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act that construction workers on federally funded reconstruction efforts be paid the prevailing wage, President Bush has ensured that much of that work will be done by illegal immigrants, as one recent New York Times report on the Mexican workers rebuilding Gulfport, Miss., made abundantly clear. (In their ongoing contest of core values, the Republicans are still more anti-labor than anti-immigrant.) More broadly, the administration increasingly acts as if the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will sprout from the bottom up.

But businesses can't really invest in the region absent assurances that the infrastructure will be rebuilt, that public services will be restored, that taxpayers will be returning to live and work there. That's why Louisiana Republican Rep. Richard Baker has proposed that the federal government create a Louisiana Recovery Corporation to coordinate these massive tasks. But the administration has not only paid little heed to Baker's proposal, it has failed to create any coordinating body of its own.

What we have here is an ideologically driven dereliction of duty. If the Bush White House had been put in charge of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer and Teller would still be puttering around in the New Mexico desert today.

And it gets worse. The same Republican zealots who demand fiscal responsibility by cutting $50 billion for the indigent sick are now also demanding a new $70 billion in tax cuts, including the permanent repeal of the estate tax, that would chiefly benefit the rich. For a few brief weeks after Katrina, Republicans actually suspended their advocacy of tax cuts, but this onset of sanity came to a shuddering halt once the cameras were removed from the Superdome.

Not that it seems to bother them in the least, but the Republicans' post-Katrina priorities and those of the American public couldn't be more diametrically opposed. Earlier this month, Peter Hart's polling firm asked respondents if they believed cutting Medicaid and like programs by $35 billion (the GOP's targeted cut had not yet risen to $50 billion) and cutting taxes by $70 billion was the right or wrong priority. By a margin of 67 percent to 24 percent, the respondents said it was wrong. And in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week, 48 percent of those questioned said they wanted the Democrats to control the next Congress, while just 39 percent favored the Republicans.

You'd think these figures would give the Republicans pause. Instead, they increasingly act as though they were immune to the laws of political gravity. Republicans have grown so accustomed to winning elections by gerrymandering districts, activating their faithful and attacking Democrats over trumped-up issues that they believe they can survive even major shifts in public sentiment.

Not all congressional Republicans can afford to be so cavalier about public opinion, of course. A few moderates have expressed misgivings about the cutbacks. Last week, the primary group that had mobilized the grass-roots opposition to Social Security privatization announced that it had reconstituted itself as the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities, and it identified 13 such moderates whom it will pressure to oppose the cuts. In the main, though, the Republican revolution proceeds on its march to extremes, undaunted, in the manner of most ideological revolutions, by the constraints of popular opinion and actual consequence.