Democracy Arsenal

December 07, 2006

Hurricane Katrina

Democracy Returns to New Orleans
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Week two in New Orleans. I spent all day last Saturday as a guest of the organization AmericaSpeaks  attending the Community Congress II . This was a meeting of nearly 3000 New Orleanians--many in the diaspora beamed in from Houston, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Atlanta. With simultaneous voting, lots of technology and professional facilitation, these citizens set a priority agenda for rebuilding their city called the Unified New Orleans Plan.

I saw more democracy in that convention center in six hours than I saw while working for the past 8 years on Capitol Hill. I'm only partly exaggerating. They had simultaneous translation into Vietnamese! It was astounding and impressive. People who had lost their homes were gracious and optimistic and intent on problem-solving. And the first table I sat at included a little old lady who banged her fist down and said "if we can send millions to Iraq to rebuild, why can't we help New Orleans?"  Indeed.  Building Amsterdam-like levees around the city would cost 8 billion. That's one month in Iraq war spending.

I was surprised to see many champion the importance of personal responsibility. There was very little victim language. Despite the fact that New Orleans is our American poster child for state failure. We own it. Government has failed the city at every level....expectations are--like the city--below sea level.  They had a good sense of humor about it.  At one point, the moderator on stage had a communications breakdown with the audience and responded "Don't go all FEMA on me".

Here's the irony for me:  I gripe all the time about how our conservative leadership has outsourced the public interest or sold it off to the highest bidder. Well, this was a case of outsourcing that was  just excellent. New Orleans--having received effectively no help from any public entity--outsourced its participatory democracy with philanthropic funding.  Check out the results .  This is all a great innovation in bolstering democracy but remember, we pay taxes so our government will respond to us citizens.  Private philanthropy and NGOs are no substitute for that.  One of the ways conservatives have dominated the agenda for the past decades is by keeping progressives running in circles trying to replace with private money things that rightfully should be paid for by taxes: like representative government.

We have to save New Orleans. As poet-rapper Hollywood Delahoussaye spoke during half-time "you are not just where I live, you are who I am"

New Orleans should be in everyone's top five favorite cities. If its not, there is something wrong with you. It would be like not liking dogs.

And that evening, while shopping for Christmas, I saw a wedding parade. 

Sunday I attended Rootscamp DC .  Check out the site and the lists of organizations working on progressive campaigns. That's something to be proud of.

November 15, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

CAP Conference on Homeland Security
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

The Center for American Progress, one of Democracy Arsenal's sponsoring organizations is hosting an important conference this Thursday on critical infrastructure, preparedness and homeland security.   Recognizing that Katrina exposed glaring flaws in our readiness to contend with the economic, public safety, and public health consequences of a terrorist strike or similar catastrophe at home, the conference will examine lessons from the aftermath of the hurricane for preparedness efforts.    The keynote is Bennie Thompson (D-MS) from the House Homeland Security Committee.  See extended post for the excellent line-up of experts who will speak and for details on registration.

Continue reading "CAP Conference on Homeland Security" »

September 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Iraq

A Great Speech, but...
Posted by Michael Signer

The President's speech last night was one of the best I have heard him give.  It was elegant yet strong, compact yet memorable, and he evinced an emotional connection -- a seriousness and an empathy -- that was unfamiliar to me.  He seemed mature and poised, and grounded.  And what I appreciated most was the general intellectual honesty of the speech, its humility, and its can-do embrace of entrepreneurship -- an idea that could be applied not only to the people whom the President was addressing (the New Orleanians who hopefully will soon own homes and businesses for the first time in their lives) but to the President himself -- we need him to be an entrepreneur, a leader, for us. 

So, the question I want to ask is:

Why hasn't he made the same kind of speech about Iraq?

The parallels between the hurricane and Iraq are striking. 

In both, a lack of preparation and planning by the federal government approached gross negligence, and (in some sense) criminal liability. 

In both, the death tolls are likely to be in the low thousands -- low, compared with historical catastrophes like world wars or massive man-made disasters, but high, against the standard of avoidable disasters -- or, put another way, death by choice. 

In both, the conservative philosophy, which entails not only a dislike of big government, but a disrespect of governance itself -- of the art of managing the instruments of collective action -- has backfired so wildly and lavishly it's reminiscent of the guns in those old peacenik posters whose barrels have been twisted into knots -- being fired.

In both, the least well-off (in New Orleans, urban underclass African-Americans, and in the Iraq War, National Guard and Reserve families) have borne the brunt of poor policy and poor planning.

Finally, in both, the obvious choice facing the President has been between responsibility or spin -- between avoidance and an embrace of the burden.  In Iraq, he has consistently avoided treat ing the situation with the gravitas, humility, intellectual honesty, or constructive spirit we saw last night.

While he deserves praise for the speech last night, if the Administration follows through, in good faith, on its promises, he deserves equally heavy criticism for what it shows about Iraq.  While he elevated himself last night, the lantern he raised unintentionally illuminated the depths of his failures in Iraq. 

September 15, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Posted by Michael Signer

PigsIt looks like President Bush, in his speech to the nation tonight on Hurricane Katrina, will propose funding the relief effort partly through the selective reduction in some embarrassing pork-barrel projects passed by "conservative' House members in their recent frenzy of self-indulgence called the highway bill -- you know, the one paved with bacon.

The Washington Post reports that the President is looking at a smart, tough proposal by the Heritage Foundation's Ron Utt (who's a family friend -- our families grew up on the same block together) to cut around $12 billion of pork and direct the funds instead to hurricane relief.  The idea borrows from a rare phenomenon -- people around the country who actually want to give appropriations back to the government.  Ron reports:

Indeed, the citizens of Bozeman, Montana, are proposing to return the $4 million they received for a new parking garage, arguing that the people of the Gulf need the money more than Bozeman needs a garage.  In Alaska, concerned citizens are barraging local newspapers with letters to the editor decrying the $320 million that will be wasted building the state’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

In the through-the-looking-glass ideological world of the Bush Administration, it's altogether weird that I should be praising him for borrowing a liberal (née conservative) approach on funding Hurricane Relief -- but whatever.  This is a good idea.

Of course, it wouldn't be any fun if I finished without noting the delicious fact that the opposition to the plan is coming from none other than Congressional Republicans:

While support for the giveback concept is spreading rapidly across the country, the response from Members of Congress has been mostly silence.  A few angrily defended the spending and challenged the practicality of the giveback plan, while others claim that the $2.5 trillion federal budget contains no low-priority programs or wasteful spending.  In response to questions from the press and pressure from voters, a spokesman for Highway Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) called the plan “moronic” and defended the highway legislation.

As a deficit hawk-conservative friend of mine said to me last week, referring to Virginia Republicans, who have similarly wreaked havoc with the Old Domion's budget:  "I'm too conservative to be Republican."


September 13, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

No-Bid Contracts: A Way of Life
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

All the things wrong with no-bid contracting for Katrina - and the things that ought to be happening instead - are laid out in this post.

But here's what the Washington Post says is actually happening:

The agency has already begun awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid Katrina contracts under loosened government rules designed to get relief and rebuilding efforts underway quickly. As the money begins to flow, some fear the agency could become overwhelmed. "They've never spent anything even remotely on this scale. So the real question is going to be what kind of controls are in place," said Bill Jenkins, who monitors FEMA for the Government Accountability Office. "There are going to be fraudsters coming out of the woodwork." . . . .

Last week FEMA gave out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts to engineering and construction firms to build an estimated 300,000 temporary housing units. Those contracts were awarded without competition under rules that allow agencies to bypass normal procedures during an emergency. Several went to companies that have been major financial supporters of the Bush administration. One firm, Shaw Group Inc., of Baton Rouge, is on the client list of lobbyist and former FEMA director Joe M. Allbaugh, though he has said he does not get involved with contracts. . . .

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking minority member on the Senate committee overseeing FEMA, said last night that he has discussed with [Sen Susan] Collins [Maine] the idea of a special IG to monitor Katrina spending. "Congress has to be very aggressive in making sure that in our haste to help we aren't wasting an enormous amount of public money, or worse, having it used in a way that's corrupt," he said.

In addition to making sure the American public doesn't get bilked, Congress ought to also see to it that the businesses and people of New Orleans get in on the action.  Otherwise that great city may get rebuilt, with no one who wants to go back and live there.

September 10, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Katrina Clean-Up: And the Winner Is . . . Halliburton
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Last week, I warned that while we were all fretting over the fate of hurricane victims, firms with close ties to the Administration would be lining up for the reconstruction gravy train.  I pointed out that such firms, including principally Halliburton and its subsidiaries, had been accused of massive fraud, mismanagement and waste in relation to their roles roles in post-war Iraq.

Sure enough, its happening.  This story reports that Halliburton and Bechtel have already scored rich contracts for clean-up work on the Gulf Coast.   Members of Congress, the media and the public should demand accountability and insist that the people of New Orleans partake of the economic opportunities that will be created through the rebuilding effort.  The clean-up and reconstruction processes should be used as ways to lure people back to New Orleans to revive and reshape their city, not to line the pockets of the Administration's favorite large corporations.

September 08, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Remember New Orleans: Conservatism is Over
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children's children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives.  I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours......It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desireable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained...The nation is worth fighting for...

Abraham Lincoln to the 166th Ohio Regiment, 1864

Government is good. It's a common good. For such a prosperous and successful country, Americans have relatively few things that unite us, a language, some symbols, a few songs, a government.  All things considered, we've done really well as a nation built on a balance between cooperation and self-interest. 

My last post laid a good deal of blame on the current administration for negligence and lousy priorities leading up to the drowning of New Orleans. They didn't cause  the hurricane, of course.  Bush's campaign-recycled political appointees at FEMA aren't soley responsible for the chaos and incompetence in the response to Katrina, either.  It's not just the President to blame, with his fake photo-ops  his bizarre humor and his skittery, distant gaze during Katrina coverage.  It wasn't only his mother Barbara-- who thinks that the mostly poor storm refugees must be better off now that they are in Texas.  No, I'd go even further.  The pitiful disarray and our government's incapacity-- humiliatingly laid bare by Katrina-- is not an accident. It is, rather, an outcome.   This broken and feeble apparatus, the government that Lincoln so loved-- is exactly what the American conservative movement--ascendent for thirty years--has wrought.

Unlike their thoughtful intellectual ancestors, today's conservatives hate government. Suspicion of government--our common good--is incessant and pervasive.  Their dismal chorus has provided the political soundtrack of my cohort's lifetime.   It's near impossible to pinpoint actual intentions that lead to massive failure but it is important to delve into this gray area and state a basic truth: in politics, values are not priorities and it is a big mistake to confuse the two.  Everyone values New Orleans--yet building solid levees and saving the marshland to protect it has never been a priority.  Everyone values a rapid and competent federal response--yet creating a prepared and capable public sector is a low priority according to reigning conservative philosophy.  Bureaucracies are boring and wasteful and federal overhead is expensive.  Privatize it.  Then all of a sudden you need well trained experts and a helicopter to plug the levee. It needs to happen NOW-- not when a private company can make one available.  The helicopter doesn't come until its too late.  This is what happens when the people in charge don't own the assets.   Government atrophy is rarely the result of one distinct deliberate act. It happens when big problems--like hurricanes--get put in the "too hard" box and attendant concerns are never dealt with properly.

FEMA is not real government capacity, it is a contracting agency that relies on outside entities to carry out most of its mission.  The Department of Homeland Security did not even have an internal inventory of relief skills when Katrina hit.  The only organization in our government that is a healthy public service is the military.  But  if the only agency Congress will fund is the Defense Department, then pretty soon the Army is going to be responsible for everything. Witness Katrina.  Is that what we really want?   Here's the top ten list from the  President's Homeland Security Council. This list is from a July, 2004 internal planning document:

1. nuclear detonation 2. biological attack anthrax 3. biological disease outbreak influenza 4. biological attack plague 5. chemical attack blister agent 6. chemical attack toxic industrial chemicals 7. chemical attack nerve agent 8. chemical attack chlorine 9. natural disaster earthquake 10. natural disaster hurricane. 

Hurricane is number ten. This list should make the government haters take a long breath,  say goodbye, and give it up.

September 06, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Katrina: The Global Response
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Everyone from rural Delta folks to our fellow bloggers have been asking where the foreign help is.  Yes, other countries -- and the UN -- have responded to Katrina, in some cases rather rapidly. 

It just doesn't seem to make the news.

The US has gotten offers of help from more than 20 countries -- admittedly, Cuba's offer of doctors and Venezuela's offer of cheap fuel and relief workers have something of the political about them.  And W. promptly insisted that we'd step up and handle it ourselves, which sounds great in theory.

Nadezhda started a list of responses from foreign governments last week.  She also expresses the hope that Bush will correct the mis-impression that foreigners aren't helping.  Of course he won't.  That would undermine the idea that we're out there by ourselves and can't trust international cooperation.  So we ought to keep the lists updated and zipping around the blogosphere.

Herewith, the inauguration of an occasional feature to list and document how generous some other societies are being -- some of them our oldest friends and others countries with precious little to spare themselves.  I'm only including countries where I have evidence that a specific amount is being provided, not just pledged.  Links are provided as best I can, and readers are encouraged to add to the list.

Afghanistan -- $100,000 (with a per capita GNP one-fiftieth of ours, this is symbolic but still astonishing)

Likewise Sri Lanka, one of the countries hardest-hit by last year's tsunami, pledged $25,000 to the American Red Cross.

Australia -- already donated $7.7 million to the American Red Cross and sent emergency specialists to see what else could be of use.

Japan -- donated $200,000 to the American Red Cross and pledged $300,000 of supplies.

Singapore sent four Chinook helicopters for relief operations.

Kuwait is donating $500 million of oil and relief supplies, per Brian Ulrich.

NATO allies responded rapidly to a specific list of US requests:

Germany has sent 40,000 ready-to-eat meals and is sending another 30,000.

The UK is sending half-a-million ration packs.

France, according to the Financial Times, has requisitioned 300 tents as well as other gear from the Antilles.  (I'm making a vow not to comment on any of these, even though some seem to be crying out for it.)

Luxembourg and Romania came through with blankets and beds and medical teams, respectively.

Canada, according to the blog centerfield, has offered to help and so far is being assessed by our Department of Health and Human Services for what it might do.

The Dutch deployed a naval frigate that had been in the Caribbean.

And those hated international organizations?

The US has accepted the UN's offer of help (gee, who knew) and allowed UN assessment teams in to start figuring out what prepackaged UN supplies, housing, etc could come in handy.  Just watch out for those black helicopters.

The International Energy Agency offered 60 million barrels of crude oil or gasoline to help us over the current shortages.

Soon, when I don't owe the rest of the evening to my in-laws, I'll run some comparisons to help us think about how this aid stacks up to the quantity of aid we dispense elsewhere.  And I'll again solicit reader help in keeping this list going and accurate.

Hurricane Katrina

The Wrong Commission
Posted by Derek Chollet

To answer the howling criticism from every corner about "what went wrong," President Bush said today that he would launch his own investigation into the flawed Katrina recovery effort – but what he said does not come even close to passing the laugh test.  Here’s his statement in full:

“Q Do you intend to replace any from your administration who are leading this recovery effort, who were part of the effort last week that has been so widely criticized?

“THE PRESIDENT: What I intend to do is lead a -- to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong. And I'll tell you why. It's very important for us to understand the relationship between the federal government, the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe. And the reason it's important is, is that we still live in an unsettled world. We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there's a WMD attack or another major storm. And so I'm going to find out over time what went right and what went wrong.”

Josh Marshall rightly calls this “sad”; I’d also add appalling and pathetic.  What we need is not for the President or executive branch to investigate itself – the White House’s transparent efforts to shift blame from itself to the local and state authorities over the weekend pretty much undermines what little credibility any such investigation would ever have.  Congress is initiating its own inquiry, but as we’ve learned with the numerous investigations into 9-11 and intelligence failures in Iraq, such efforts will also be limited.  So we must demand that the President works with Congress to appoint a bi-partisan, independent investigation, with both Republicans and Democrats allowed to choose an equal number of members, and an independent staff with expertise at all levels of government.  And if the President refuses, Congress should force him (which is what it did with the 9-11 Commission).

Or, if Washington partisanship proves to be too much for any branch of the government to do the right thing, another idea would be for Congress to outsource the effort to a consortium of outside research institutions to run and supervise, which is what happened earlier this year with the Gingrich-Mitchell commission on UN reform -- whose work earned wide respect for its seriousness and independence.  The Katrina catastrophe is the most urgent crisis our country has faced since 9-11; like that tragedy, it revealed deep flaws in America’s ability to respond, and warrants a credible, independent assessment so we can learn how to prevent such disasters from ever happening again.  The last thing we need is another vehicle for partisan point scoring.

September 05, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding New Orleans: Fairness in Contracting Post-Katrina
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Call me paranoid, but if Iraq is any indication, there's good reason to be concerned to ensure that the devastation of New Orleans does not wind up simply lining the pockets of contractors with deep connections to the Bush Administration.

For the reconstruction of Iraq, exigencies like the need for speed and the lack of security on the ground were used to justify granting massive, long-term no bid contracts to firms with tight ties to senior members of the Administration.  The principal beneficiary was, of course, Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was CEO prior to becoming Vice President. 

Rep. Henry Waxman has revealed that Halliburton and its subsidiaries have been awarded more than $10 billion in contracts for providing logistical support to US troops in Iraq and helping to rebuild that country's oil infrastructure.  This is despite the fact that government auditors had, as of the end of last year, issued nine reports criticizing Halliburton for mismanagement and waste.   This prompted a series of criminal investigations into fraud and kickbacks by Halliburton, at least one of which has apparently led to the indictment of a former Halliburton official.  Auditors recommendations that a portion of Halliburton's payments be withheld pending more complete expense accounting were rejected by the Administration.   

A laundry of egregious revelations is included in this memo from Waxman's office.  They include scrapping $85,000 trucks due to flat tires, manipulating contracting practices to avoid bidding requirements, and charges of $45 per case of soda and $100 per 15-pound bag of washing. 

The problems are not limited to Halliburton - the facts on the multiple investigations, the hundreds of billions of dollars of overcharges to US taxpayers, the political interference in contracting and the cover-ups are all here.

Rather than crack down on such abuses, the Bush Administration has punished the whistleblowers, including a top Army procurement official who tried to call attention to the cheating.

Ten billion dollars have already been appropriated by Congress for the relief and reconstruction of New Orleans.  Billions more will follow.  Halliburton's already in on the action - under an existing $500 million contract with the navy they are rebuilding a Gulf Coast naval base.

It's not hard to imagine the justifications that will be given for simply awarding billions more in post-Katrina recovery deals to Halliburton and its kin:  the company is located in nearby Texas; they've got lots of experience with similar government contracts (natch); they're so enormous that they can get people on the ground quickly; and they're so profitable that they can afford to pay experts.  And with New Orleans literally under water, whose got time for competitive bidding?

There are several reasons why this must not happen:

- - The people of New Orleans deserve better.  We all know by now what the people of New Orleans, and particularly the city's poor, have gone through.  There will be those who profit from New Orleans' tragedy.   But we should make sure to the extent possible that it is local business owners and citizens who will, in turn, invest those proceeds into rebuilding New Orleans.   Contracting practices should require eligible companies to employ local people, and should favor companies that are locally owned and controlled.

- We have time.  Sad to say, it will take months of pumping and demolition before any kind of rebuilding can begin.  While there is urgency to the former, there is lead-time on the latter.  During the intervening months, responsible federal, state and local authorities should conduct a competitive bidding process so that the majority of the contracts which are not highly time-sensitive can be awarded fairly.

- The public should not be cheated again.  The American public is already awakening to the fact that the massive bill we will pay to bail out New Orleans is the result of shoddy planning and bad decision-making, including the de-funding of projects aimed to fortify the city's levees.  We have no choice but to eat those costs, but that is no excuse to further pile on.

- Cronyism is already being fingered for the inadequate initial response to Katrina.  FEMA head Michael ("Brownie") Brown ascended to the post after being ousted as a judges and standards of the International Arabian Horse Association.  His primary qualification was apparently being a buddy of Joseph Allbaugh, the former head of FEMA, whose own primary qualification for the country's top emergency management post was having been Bush's 2000 campaign manager.  From blaming the victims to being way to slow with aid, Brown's inexperience is showing.  We cannot afford more of the same when it comes to the reconstruction effort - we need the very best people in charge.

- It's bad politics - Whereas the fraud and waste underway in Iraq seem remote to most Americans, the same won't be true on the Gulf Coast.  Katrina will be an inflection point on a range of issues.  The reconstruction process will either be viewed as part of the problem or part of the solution.

What should happen? 

  • Competitive bidding for everything, or for everything but the work that must happen over the next few weeks;
  • Zero-tolerance for shoddy accounting and over-billing - in Iraq we may have few alternatives, here there are many;
  • Strict GAO and Congressional oversight of the reconstruction process from the get-go;
  • Immediate planning for how to involve the local community and maximize opportunities for area companies, for skilled people and for the unemployed/unskilled labor;
  • Close media scrutiny of the bail-out and reconstruction process as it unfolds - this story will have legs for years to come as either a tale of redemption or a chronicle of abuses piled on other abuses.

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