Las Americas

Make Levees Not War'


Washington is bustling these days, as the hottest September ever draws to a close. On Saturday the 24th, more than 100,000 people gathered near the Bush White House for a long-planned protest against the Iraq war and other official crimes. Three days earlier, the Republican Study Committee gave the protest added momentum by releasing “Operation Offset,” a ripping read setting out a proposal for funding Katrina reconstruction while keeping the war going and tax cuts intact.

The “Offset” piece, now stirring up hurricane-force winds inside the GOP, shows how the rightest of the right-wing of the Republican Party plans to use this latest emergency in much the same opportunistic way as it did 9/11. In the first case, the Al Qaeda attack justified breaking down civil liberties and the civil service in this country and launching a Halliburton/Kellogg, Brown & Root assault on Iraq. The Katrina catastrophe will now justify sucking up the few dollars left in social programs and handing them over to KBR and Halliburton as payment for no-bid repairs to levees, ports, and oil rigs along the Gulf Coast. But this kind of debate about specific allocations of public money, with programs and dates and numbers, is just the sort of thing that the Congress likes to keep out of sight. The hurricanes, by forcing emergency spending of such unanticipated magnitude, are forcing the numbers out into the open.

Meanwhile, for the Bushies, the alarming aspect of the protest on the 24th had to be the way in which the demonstration’s organizers and marchers tied together the dissension about the war and the disgust about the hurricane response. Signs and chants showed the prevailing anger and desperation: The billions looted from the Treasury and paid to merchants of death to create a man-made catastrophe in Iraq left the government unprepared and under-funded when it needed to rescue its own citizens from a natural one at home. And now we understand that, to address the Katrina aftermath, Bush cronies are orchestrating another $200 billion-plus heist.

Welcoming marchers to the anti-war protest on the morning of the 24th was a mobile billboard positioned on 15th Street, at the eastern approach to the sprawling crowd on the grounds of the Washington Monument. The screen showed a 10-foot by 15-foot color photograph of the New Orleans flood. We have all seen the picture many times now—the inundation between the river and the lake dotted with intermittent rooftops and spanned by the doomed causeway out of the city. The billboard also displayed the well-known quote from the Republican ideologue The Nation magazine calls Field Marshal Grover Norquist: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

So, if the federal response to Katrina was any indication—Mission Accomplished! Seems the late federal government drowned in the bayou just about a month ago, together with about 1,000 poor, old and/or sick people, plus their babies and their pets. So even if the Iraq war is off the rails, the Bush assault on the U.S. feds is right on track and ahead of schedule.

The issue here is complicated but it is also simple, and for eight hours the anti-war march protested the reality now poking through the relentless Republican party drivel about freedom, democracy, and—what else? “Staying the course”—whatever that means. The issue, as usual, is massive corruption: the transformation of public assets into private wealth for the select few around the politically anointed and appointed.

As the march neared the front of the White House just after noon, a crowd gathered near the by-now beloved “Billionaires for Bush” street theater. There they were, our bogus billionaires, dressed semi-regally in rusty tuxedos, and tatty evening dresses, flourishing cigarette holders and flashing rhinestones, promenading past the Bank of America at the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue. Periodically, they would burst into song: “All we are saaa-ying, is give greed a chance.” One ersatz doyenne brandished a sign that read, “It’s class warfare, darling, and we’re winning.”

Which brings us back to Operation Offset, where class warfare has quietly escalated throughout September, and the real siege is just beginning. Believe me, darling, these people are not kidding.

Their Katrina payoff plan opens with the chapter, “Tough Choices for Tough Times.” You might think that the tough choice in question is whether or not the real billionaires are going to get their tax cuts again this fall, but if you did, you would be wrong. The actual tough choice the Republican Study Committee had in mind here is the one that must be made, for example, by a low-income mother of a sick child, who has to decide whether to go to a doctor or pay the light bill. This is because the Katrina payoff plan would suck its greatest sustenance ($225 billion over 10 years) out of acute medical services for the poor. An additional sum would be raised by increasing the Medicaid co-payment charged the poor. This approach would “Encourage a more cost-conscious use of services by beneficiaries, reducing the unnecessary number of medical services provided” (For absolutely inscrutable reasons, Republican ideologues insist upon believing that poor people routinely go to doctors and hospitals for entertainment because—what?—it’s cheaper than the movies? What are they thinking? That anyone enjoys whiling away an evening sitting in a grimy waiting room, watching closed circuit TV ads for prescription drugs?).

Given this peculiar propensity of the poor to visit hospitals and health care professionals for no apparent reason, much of the funding Operation Offset would allocate to rebuild New Orleans and environs would come from the government’s commitments to health care. Delaying implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit would save about $31 billion (over 10 years) and imposing a home health care co-payment of 10 percent would save $31 billion. So, if you were among the New Orleans poor who somehow survived Katrina, you would not expect any medical help for your injuries or traumas from the Offset folks.

Additional savings would be drained out of an assortment of other federal programs, some of them identified in the awkwardly titled chapter, “Reprioritization of Federal Spending.” This list lays out the plans to eliminate state grants for “Safe and Drug-Free Schools,” teenagers’ access to family planning, the National and Community Service Act, and school lunches for children whose parents make 3.5 times the poverty rate. You get the idea.

Sometimes the money saved by eliminating or reducing a program is nearly nil—would barely pay for a bomb or a boat. But Operation Offset slashes it simply because it could possibly represent one last government thrash in the bathtub before going completely under. In this category, we find the Appalachian Regional Commission, which gives job training to the rural poor. Community health centers would also get the budgetary ax, together with the Center for Disease Control, the airport improvement program and the Office of Environmental Management, which mitigates hazards posed by nuclear weapons production and research. Also on the block are the Bureau of Indian Affairs School Construction Program, the Forest Service, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Labor, of course, must shoulder its part of the burden, so Operation Offset would “raise the threshold for Davis-Bacon Coverage.” Davis-Bacon is the law that requires the government to hire construction contractors who pay a prevailing wage (as opposed to a minimum wage). This requirement applies to all contracts over $2,000, but “Offset” would raise the threshold to contracts over $1 million. Dubya might be surprised to find this provision in the plan, since he thought he already suspended Davis-Bacon altogether, allowing federally-funded construction contractors, among others, to exploit the desperate by paying the smallest possible pittance.

Just before the march, Dubya himself had left Washington and was hopscotching through military command centers and scurrying between photo ops as the White House remained in hurricane-crisis, image-management mode. To cover for him, a couple of convincing imposters walked along with the crowds. One of his look-alikes wore that signature American flag lapel pin, an over-the-head George W. mask and a crown. His placard read “The Lyin’ King”—a great favorite.

At the White House gates another masked Dubya appeared in a flight suit, with a helmet topped by rotary blades and an ID badge that read “Alabama Air National Guard, AWOL, 1972.”

“Come on, man, let me in,” this Dubya yelled at one of the stoical guards manning the entrance to the grounds. “You know me. I left my keys back in Crawford.” The guard almost, almost smiled, as a Laura Bush look-alike bustled up wearing a mask and a button that read “Blow jobs are better than no jobs.”

“Come on, George,” she said. “Leave that poor man alone. He has more important things to do than mess with you,” and Flight-Suit George reluctantly followed her away.

The real George, meanwhile, accompanied by the rest of his party, continues to exploit ways to push the rest of his disastrous agenda through the few barriers still standing between him and the death of democracy. As the march ended and the demonstrators dispersed, news filtered out that Administration officials are now considering using the military to manage domestic disasters like Katrina and Rita. This proposal was characterized by the Associated Press as “politically sensitive” though, especially with governors in the southern states.

Well, maybe it would have been, but these days, we’re glad to hear it. This means we’re not extinguishing the government in the bathtub after all. On the contrary. We’re only drowning civilian government. We’re all delighted to know that, as our roofs blow away and the flood waters rise to the first-floor landing, all we need to do is swim out and join up. Once we sign on as members of the Armed Forces, we can all get ready access to doctors and dentists whenever we need them, plus meals-ready-to-eat and goggles.

For those of us who behave well and stay away from demonstrations like this last one, body armor might even become available. For the rest of you, there’s always incarceration.

Outside the White House, police arrested Cindy Sheehan on Monday, September 26 for failure to move along.

I don’t know about you, darlings, but I personally do not want to be charged with that. I’m putting in for my ration of body armor straight away because—if the real Billionaires for Bush have their way—we are all going to need it soon. Right here at home.

Gabriela Bocagrande, a native of Houston, lives in Washington, D.C. She regularly reports on corporate and multilateral malfeasance for the Observer.