At some point, a hurricane is downgraded from a crisis to a problem. Now that most residents have been rescued and the water in New Orleans is dropping, the crisis is nearing an end. But the problem -- how to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- remains. Our federal government already has announced plans to spend $62 billion in relief for the damaged areas. No doubt the final bill will be much higher. But as lawmakers scramble to throw money at the problem, it's worth remembering that no level of government has distinguished itself in the last several weeks. The city of New Orleans failed to evacuate its residents properly. The state of Louisiana prevented private aid agencies from going in to help victims. And onerous federal regulations delayed the building of critical levees that might have prevented the flooding in the first place.
Still, some argue that the solution is more government. Sen. Ted Kennedy. D-Mass., is proposing the creation of a Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, to be led by a Cabinet-level official. Thus, even a public-private partnership becomes ensnared in red tape. This new layer of bureaucracy would hire thousands of construction workers, engineers and government planners, all at union wages and subject to federal labor regulations. However, we all ought to be able to agree that we shouldn't respond to government failures by making the government larger and still more unwieldy. The best way to rebuild New Orleans will be for the government to get out of the way. Congress and state governments can do this by eliminating or reducing regulations and allowing communities to decide for themselves how best to rebuild.
President Bush has already pledged to make New Orleans and other Katrina-ravaged areas federal "opportunity zones." That's a sensible step -- we should spend carefully and allow all levels of government to suspend complex regulations that otherwise would slow the rebuilding process. It's similar to a move taken in California after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when Gov. Pete Wilson suspended regulations and laws that would have made it difficult to rebuild damaged roads. Free of government interference, highway construction -- expected to take as long as two years -- wrapped up in two months.
Congress also should fix laws that are supposed to protect people, but actually increase their danger. In recent years, environmental groups filed lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act that helped block needed improvements to levees in Louisiana.
As we work to help people put their lives back together, we also should work to improve their lives. Public education in New Orleans is an embarrassment. Some 65 percent of the public schools in the city failed the state's performance standard this year, compared to 11 percent of schools statewide. To help solve that problem, the federal government should make all its K-12 funding portable, giving parents control and allowing them to use it in any public or private school. That will help students while they're attending schools elsewhere and will give them real choice when they return to New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Washington should provide tax incentives for education service providers, such as charter schools or after-school tutoring companies, to encourage those businesses to open in troubled areas of the city. It won't be enough to simply rebuild school buildings -- the federal government owes it to hurricane victims to give their children a real chance at a quality education in the years ahead.
Finally, Congress must hold the line on spending.
While the rebuilding effort will cost tens of billions of dollars, lawmakers easily can find that amount elsewhere in the budget. The recently passed transportation bill, for example, contained an estimated $25 billion in pork-barrel projects.
If Congress is willing to give up its planned "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, crack down on waste (Heritage Foundation economists found that the federal government spent an estimated $20 billion on overpayments last year) and stop funding unauthorized programs (the Congressional Budget Office found that in 2005, 167 unauthorized programs received $170 billion), Washington can rebuild the Gulf Coast without deepening the budget deficit. "Private capital, entrepreneurs, small business people are going to have more to do with how the coast comes back and how southeast Mississippi comes back than all the governments in the world," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently announced.
Let's make sure that in responding to the temporary problems of Katrina, we don't simply create the permanent problem of ever more -- and ever more expensive -- bureaucracy.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
First appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle