WASHINGTON – Congressional failures to approve emergency funding for roads, schools and housing construction have stalled Mississippi efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, the state's Republican governor testified Wednesday.
Without such help, Mississippi businesses are unable to decide where to relocate and rebuild — potentially costing the state jobs and chilling its economy, said Gov. Haley Barbour. His comments were among the sharpest criticism by a top Republican from the hardest-hit states of Congress and Bush administration relief efforts.
"We are at a point where our recovery and renewal efforts are stalled because of inaction in Washington, D.C., and the delay has created uncertainty that is having very negative effects on our recovery and rebuilding," said Barbour, a strong ally of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Republican National Committee chairman.
"It is taking the starch out of people who've worked so hard to help themselves and their neighbors," Barbour told a House panel investigating the government's preparations and response to Katrina.
Congress has approved $62 billion in hurricane relief aid, but nearly all of that money so far has been spent on victims' immediate needs, like food, clothing and shelter. Mississippi expects to use up to $17 billion of that funding — $9 billion of which has already been spent, Barbour said.
Republican lawmakers on the panel, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said Katrina aid no longer appears to be a high congressional priority.
"The reality is that a lot of members of Congress, both on the House and Senate side, do not have relief for Gulf Coast states on the front burner anymore," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas.
"In many cases around the country, members of Congress are hearing from constituents saying, 'We're really not interested in you supporting any additional relief until there's some real strong accountability,"' Bonilla said.
Barbour applauded some federal help to the state, like Coast Guard rescues in the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 29 storm, and fuel from the Transportation Department for emergency response vehicles.
He also estimated that debris removal in the state is only about half completed, and "we can't rebuild until we clean up."
But he chastised Congress for stalling federal highway funding that he said has prevented the state from rebuilding roads and bridges. He also said Congress has failed to approve financial aid for public school districts that are facing bankruptcy, or help homeowners without flood insurance rebuild or repair their homes.
"We must have assistance from the federal government to rebuild our infrastructure and make our citizens able to help themselves," Barbour said. "That important federal responsibility in the response to Katrina is needed terribly, and it is needed now."
Democrats on the House panel jumped at the political opportunity to align themselves with Barbour's remarks.
"I applaud you for scolding the House leadership," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss. "I didn't vote to elect Dennis Hastert, governor — you helped get him there. I'd hope you'd use that influence to get him off his duff."
Also at the hearing, Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said he would make a formal push next week to have the special oversight committee subpoena the White House for documents lawmakers requested more than two months ago.
Of about a dozen state, local and federal agencies that were asked to provide documents detailing preparations and response to Katrina, the White House and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have not complied, Melancon said.
In a December 6 letter to Melancon and Davis, White House Deputy Counsel William K. Kelley said officials would have to sift through 71 million e-mails and records to find those requested by the committee. That process, Kelley said, could "be overly burdensome and unduly impinge on the separations of powers between the Legislative and Executive branches of government" Instead, Kelley offered a briefing with administration officials.