Members of the Congressional Black Caucus gathered in Washington on Friday to voice their frustration at the pace of hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast and offered a few specific ideas that they thought might help, such as, every hotel chain in America opening its doors to people evacuated from Louisiana and providing donated accommodations.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., also urged every American air carrier, from United to Delta, to fly planes to New Orleans to remove people from the city and bring them to other cities.
“Why can’t we absorb them in New York, in Chicago, in Virginia, in Washington, D.C.?” Jackson asked, adding “Where are the hotels of America, where is the Hyatt, and the Hilton and the Holiday Inn and the Fairmont? Where are those airlines that we bailed out after 9/11 who suffered greatly because of that unspeakable tragedy as Americans turned away from the travel industry?”
Even as Jackson spoke, the nation’s airlines were beginning an airlift, with up to four flights per hour going in and out of the New Orleans airport to bring supplies and remove evacuees.
This volunteer effort is being coordinated by the Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents airlines.
“The federal government is responding and we’re moving the pace up a little bit but it is simply not fast enough,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. said.
Criticism of FEMA
He noted that the $10 billion in disaster relief funds approved by Congress Friday will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “I, for one, have not been very impressed with FEMA to date,” Cummings said.
He quoted a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus said, “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.” Cummings concluded, “To the president of the United States, I simply say: God can not be pleased with our response.”
“If they president doesn’t have people competent to do the job, he needs to get rid of them, and put somebody else in who can do the job,” Cummings said.
Asked whether some other agency — such as the Department of Defense — would do a better job than FEMA is doing, Cummings demurred.
The Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist also signaled his dissatisfaction with FEMA Friday, urging Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to hold a hearing to scrutinize FEMA’s hurricane response.
The House members expressed anger at the news media for using the term “refugees” which they regard as insulting and for airing video footage of looters in the city.
Attack of use of the term 'refugees'
“The people are not ‘refugees’ — they are American citizens, they pay taxes, they raise their families... and I wish the media would call them American citizens and not refugees which relegates them to another whole status,” said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich.
Political observers in the nation’s capitol were still assessing how the frustration and shock from Hurricane Katrina might change the political environment once all members of Congress arrive back in town next week, as well as how the catastrophe might change the political calculus in next year’s elections.
One campaign theme already seems obvious: some Democrats will argue that the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress is spending too much abroad and should re-focus money on Americans at home.
“The leadership of this nation wants to take freedom and justice all across the world — what about freedom and justice right here in the United States of America?” asked Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio.
“Why is it that the money people pay in taxes is going elsewhere and two (former) presidents are told to go out and collect private funds?” wondered Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif.
Bring National Guard back
One Republican House member issued a statement that reflected a perhaps bipartisan sense of weariness with overseas commitments.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., urged Bush to bring home National Guardsmen stationed in Iraq whose homes and families were located in the hurricane's path in the Gulf States.
“This has nothing to do with Iraq," Foley said in a statement. “It has everything to do with the Guardsmen whose families and communities have been decimated by Katrina. I can't imagine how these men and women can focus on their mission in Iraq when their loved ones are homeless and in despair back home.”
Tubbs Jones, who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, offered some specific tax ideas to deal with the crisis.
Casualty losses from a natural disaster are generally deductible, but there are limits on how much can be deducted. Tubbs Jones wants to greatly expand that limit.
“There has to be all kinds of tax relief (for hurricane victims) and I think the tax relief that these people need far exceeds the need to deal with estate tax relief and other proposed permanent tax cuts we’ve been contemplating,” Tubbs Jones said.
“Many of the (congressional) districts hit by this hurricane are Republican-led and Republican-dominated and if their constituents rise up, they’ll be pressed to go in a new direction.” She cited the example of Sen. Trent Lott, R- Miss., whose house in Pascagoula, Miss. was destroyed by the storm.