September 27, 2005

September 27, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of September 26th

Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) delivered a stem-winder of a speech last week at Brown University. He alleged the President's plan to rebuild the Gulf region would transform it "into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments." He accused President Bush and his allies of "recycling all their failed policies and shipping them to Louisiana."

Excuse me? How exactly would Kerry describe the track record of liberal Great Society policies on education, housing, job training and welfare in New Orleans? After all, unlike the Ownership Society approach favored by the President and congressional conservatives, Lyndon Johnson's legacy has been the norm in New Orleans and other large cities for four decades.

Societal Problems

Consider the following portrait of pre-Katrina New Orleans:

  • Poverty: The level of "extreme poverty," which includes those with incomes 50% or less of the official poverty level, was nearly double the national average-10.35% compared to 5.7%. Overall, approximately one in four New Orleans residents lived below the official poverty line-again, twice the national average.
  • Collapse of marriage: The out-of-wedlock birth rate among African-Americans in New Orleans exceeded 75%, more than twice the national average of 34.6%, and considerably higher than the nationwide average for blacks. Not surprisingly, this catastrophic level of family breakdown gave New Orleans one of the highest welfare caseloads on a per capita basis in the nation.
  • Rampant illiteracy and innumeracy: As mentioned in last week's column, the public school system in New Orleans receives failing grades as well. In the 2002-03 academic year, 60% of fourth graders tested "below basic" or worse in reading. Astonishingly, by eighth grade, three-quarters of New Orleans' public school students couldn't read at an acceptable level. The story is similar when it comes to math competency, with 68% of fourth graders and 65% of eighth graders being left behind.
  • Little upward economic mobility: Compared to the nation as a whole, New Orleans residents were much more likely to rent rather than own their homes and far less likely to work. Whether measured on a family, household or individual basis, income levels in New Orleans were woefully behind those in the rest of the nation.

Lawmakers such as Kerry who appear determined to consign New Orleans and other communities in the Gulf region to a repeat of these failed federal interventions need a reality check.

Pork Watch

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R.-Tex.) recent assertion that precious little fat remains in the federal budget has ignited a vigorous competition on and off Capitol Hill to identify that fat. (DeLay, it should be noted, has since acknowledged that "there are programs all over the federal budget that are bloated or wasteful or inefficiently used," and "we are in the process of looking for offsets.")

The effort to convince lawmakers to redirect $24 billion from the 6,300 pork projects in the recently passed highway bill to the Katrina recovery effort gained a surprising but potentially decisive adherent when the ├╝ber-liberal leader of House Democrats, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), volunteered to send $70 million of her own pork to the Gulf. Some Republicans, perhaps sensing the Republican Party is on the verge of losing its historic advantage as the party most likely to eliminate government waste, have begun to follow her lead.

Republican budget hawk Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R.-Tex.) and 17 of his colleagues on the Republican Study Committee responded to DeLay's challenge by unveiling their own ambitious list of spending cuts at a well-attended Capitol Hill press conference. Dubbed "Operation Offset," the list includes dozens of specific recommendations to pare more than $500 billion from anticipated federal spending over the next decade.

The recommended cuts range from the ambitious, such as delaying the start of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for one year (saving: $30.8 billion) and reducing the heavy subsidies seniors now receive for physician services provided by Medicare (10-year saving of $84.7 billion), to the self-evident. Canceling NASA's new initiative to explore the Moon and Mars (10-year saving: $44 billion), barring wealthy communities from receiving grants under the Community Development Block Grant anti-poverty program (10-year saving: $9.1 billion), ending payments to "socially disadvantaged" farmers and ranchers (10-year saving: $83.5 million), ending school lunch subsidies to kids from middle class homes (10-year saving: $6.7 billion), and requiring federal workers to pay for parking (10-year saving: $1.5 billion) are but a few examples.

Capturing the grassroots energy forming behind these and other budget-cutting efforts, Hensarling quoted the offer from an anonymous constituent in New Mexico. "Give us a quiet room, copies of the spending bills, a box of red pencils," this constituent promised, "and watch what happens."

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Legal Issues

First appeared in Human Events