- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Congress returned to town this week and found Hurricane Katrina’s fury reached well beyond the Gulf Coast, jostling the legislative agenda, tossing aside certain initiatives and creating new ones. Scheduled Senate votes this week on eliminating the death tax and the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for John Roberts as chief justice were the first victims, but other changes are in store and so are new opportunities to help.

Despite the hell and anguish caused by the hurricane, the disaster also provides Congress an opportunity to consider relief efforts in a broader context. Normally, lawmakers address these tragedies by only opening the federal spending spigots — clearly necessary resources in this disaster-ravaged situation and one the Congress turned on early last weekend in emergency session. But Congress has an opportunity to adjust its short-term agenda as well as the way it approaches the broader issue of hurricane relief and reconstruction.

Lawmakers will address the disaster in several phases. The first is purely through the appropriations process already under way. Congress passed a $10.5 billion emergency aid package, with an even larger one based on the president’s request coming soon. The combination of these supplemental spending bills and monies added to other appropriations bills will cause domestic discretionary spending to far exceed pre-Katrina budget estimates — an unavoidable fiscal reality.

But the hurricane also may demand changes in other portions of this year’s fiscal blueprint crafted in a pre-Katrina world — which lawmakers are sorting out this week. For example, it’s still unclear how the hurricane’s aftermath will affect budget reconciliation — the process where congressional authorizing committees save money or raise revenue in the non-appropriations part of the budget (such as entitlement programs) by making programmatic changes.

Will the federal government have to spend more on Medicaid, farm payments or student loans due to the hurricane? If so, how does that impact efforts to trim spending growth in reconciliation?

The reconciliation process, triggered when Congress adopted a budget resolution earlier this year, directs congressional committees to achieve about $35 billion in savings and report recommendations within the next two weeks. How this legislation, which was supposed to be the “main event” in September, moves ahead, given the possible need for more money instead of less, is still unclear. Continuing ahead as planned and just adding new funding down the road as necessary is a possibility. Others say the budget process should be delayed, at least temporarily, until some of these questions about resources are more clearly defined. Decisions will play out over the next week.

But the final legislative change could be the most profound. Once immediate needs for cleanup are funded, and the other impacts on the budget (like Medicaid) are addressed, Congress should craft another bill that changes the debate about how to help people in the Gulf states. It’s both a humanitarian imperative and a chance to showcase the effectiveness of empowering individuals.

Here are a few items lawmakers may want to include in such a package.

• Why not aid the reconstruction efforts through tax incentives and streamline regulations associated with construction? Creating temporary enterprise zones that cut taxes and ease regulatory requirements to help speed this work is a start.

• Lawmakers should also better equip faith-based organizations. Revisiting President Bush’s Charitable Choice initiative, an idea scuttled by liberals in Congress for the past four years, should get the nod in such a bill. Strengthening charities overall by passing the Charity Aid and Recovery Act (CARE), another long-stalled initiative, would help armies of compassion mobilize and respond to the crisis. This legislation should also create new choices for parents and kids to use vouchers for education and retraining.

Relief in the form of federal appropriations funding for the region and the others impacted by the deluge is already happening and more resources are on the way. But Congress also has an obligation to assist aid organizations and the reconstruction efforts with policies that empower individuals beyond just federal appropriations. Conservatives should not miss this opportunity to help those in need through tax, regulatory and other policy reforms that replace flood waters with rivers of hope and new opportunity — not for political gain but to bring effective relief after the deluge.Gary J.

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