Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) this year tried to win approval of a measure to make it easier to build oil refineries but was thwarted by environmental opposition.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit, shutting down Gulf Coast refineries and helping drive gasoline prices to record highs. So Barton is looking to revive his refinery measure in the belief that it will now stand a better chance of getting through Congress.
“If there is a silver lining [to the disaster], and I’m not saying that there is, but if there is, it may be that our country is beginning to realize how fragile our energy sector is,” he said.
Proposals such as Barton’s are gaining new life as lawmakers from as far from the Gulf Coast as California and Massachusetts use a political climate suddenly altered by the hurricane to try to advance long-stalled, sometimes controversial initiatives.
For example, Katrina is being invoked in efforts to secure tax relief for the airline industry, disaster aid for farmers and energy assistance for low-income families in the Northeast.
The maneuvering is raising concern among fiscal conservatives who fear that lawmakers will go beyond what’s necessary to respond to the disaster, adding to the strain the hurricane already is causing on the budget deficit.
“The levees in New Orleans weren’t the only levees that broke,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of Capitol Hill’s staunchest fiscal conservatives.
One budget watchdog called the bipartisan stampede to promote causes and projects in Katrina’s name “the political equivalent of ambulance chasing.”
“There is no doubt that the coming string of emergency spending bills will spawn a cottage industry of lobbyists trying to get funding for anything that can be remotely related to Katrina ... from water projects far from the Gulf Coast to first-responder aid in low-threat areas,” said Robert Bixby, head of the Concord Coalition.
The airline industry has asked Congress to suspend fuel taxes for one year, a request that, if granted, would cost the government $600 million.
Those promoting the relief stress the significant rise in fuel costs since the hurricane, triggered by the damage to Gulf Coast oil rigs and refineries.
“For the airlines, the saying ‘It is always darkest before the storm’ is reversed,” James C. May, president and chief executive of the Air Transport Assn., said in written testimony to a Senate committee last week.
Energy industry lobbyists and their congressional allies also have seized on the higher fuel costs to push long-sought energy initiatives, such as relaxing a decades-old ban on new offshore oil drilling in most U.S. coastal waters and reviving a proposal by President Bush to encourage building refineries on closed military bases.
“Hurricane Katrina has shown us how poor our energy safety net is, with so much production in the Gulf Coast region,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).
Barton, chairman of the House energy committee, said: “Given what’s happened with Katrina, I think the country is much more receptive” to his bill, which would expedite the permit process for building or expanding refineries in high-unemployment areas.
Environmentalists say they are concerned that lawmakers will use the hurricane to roll back federal air and water standards. They contend that Barton’s refinery bill would give the Energy secretary broad power to set aside concerns about increased emissions and approve refinery projects over the objections of local and state officials. “I think it’s deplorable that politicians would try to exploit the tragedy of the hurricane to promote bad ideas,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.
In one effort to connect a cause to the hurricane, a group of Democratic senators last week sought to add $700 million to the annual spending bill for the Justice Department and other agencies for grants to state and local authorities to hire law enforcement officers. The measure’s sponsors argued that the funding would help meet the needs of police departments in hurricane-stricken areas, although the money would also have helped pay for more police throughout the nation.
The measure was derailed. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) remarked: “While Katrina is the reason that is given for a lot of these amendments ... in many instances, they simply increase funding for an existing program, regardless of whether it provides assistance or help -- directly or even indirectly -- to the victims of Katrina.”
Backers of efforts to secure more money to improve communications among first responders are noting problems spotlighted by the hurricane to advance their cause.
“I would think that, given Katrina, we would have more impetus for it now,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said last week after reintroducing a bill to authorize $1.5 billion over five years to help state and local agencies improve their communications systems or buy new ones.
A number of lawmakers have complained that police, fire and other emergency personnel from different agencies still have difficulty communicating with one another after the problem was made obvious by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Frist, a physician who was in New Orleans administering aid to hurricane victims, said that in one large room, “people could not communicate from one side of that room to the other.”
The hurricane also has spawned a new effort to increase funding for the Coast Guard, which played an important role in rescuing hurricane victims.
“Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s impressive achievements may not be sustainable unless Congress renews its commitment to fully supporting this indispensable service,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine).
A bipartisan group of Northeastern lawmakers is seeking more federal aid to help low-income families pay their heating bills, which are expected to soar.
“The effects of Hurricane Katrina are being felt by Americans outside of the gulf region as gasoline, heating oil and natural gas prices rise in the wake of this disaster,” Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) wrote in a recent letter to Senate appropriators. “Indeed, there is an imminent emergency confronting millions of low-income Americans unable to afford the cost of rising energy prices.”
California and Minnesota lawmakers have cited the New Orleans disaster in stepping up efforts to secure money for flood control projects in their states.
“California faces a major risk of catastrophic flooding because levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and elsewhere are in serious disrepair,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in seeking funds to shore up the levees. “A major breach could imperil hundreds of thousands of people and endanger most of the state’s water supply.”