In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, legislation in the Senate and House has been criticized as beneficial to corporations while sidelining the victims of the disaster. Recently, House Republican leaders pushed through a bill to make it easier for oil companies to build new domestic refineries. [includes rush transcript]
The bill passed 212-210 but only because the house leadership extended the vote by 40 minutes during which time two Republicans switched their vote. The legislation will streamline government permits for refineries, open federal lands for future refinery construction, weaken environmental protections, and offer subsidies to build refineries even though oil companies are making record profits. The bill would also limit the power of community or citizen groups because if they filed a lawsuit to challenge the location of a refinery they would be required to pay an oil company’s legal costs whether they win or lose the lawsuit.
In the initial vote tally, it looked as if the bill was going down to defeat two votes shy of approval. Democrats called for gaveling the vote closed to no avail. During the extra 40 minutes of voting House Speaker Dennis Hastert, majority whip Roy Blunt and former Majority Leader Tom Delay all pressured other Republicans to change their votes. After the vote, Democrat Henry Waxman asked from the floor, “Doesn’t this make the House a banana republic?”
The Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act was introduced last month by Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu, who is a Democrat, and David Vitter, who is a Republican. The LA Times reported this week that lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated the panels advising the senators in crafting the legislation. Most of the lobbying firms are major campaign contributors and several have donated heavily to the campaigns of Landrieu and Vitter. The bill is estimated to cost $246 billion dollars and includes billions of dollars of business for clients of the lobbyists. The act has been criticized as a missed opportunity to begin creative and equitable reconstruction of the devastated region. Keith Ashdown of the non-partisan watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that the lobbyists were exploiting the catastrophe. “They are using Katrina to get funding they haven’t been able to get in the past. You want to help the region but the bill they put together has a lot of projects that aren’t needed. This is congressional looting at its worse.”
John Walke, Director for the Natural Resource Defense Council in Washington DC.
Ivor van Heerden, Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Public Health Research Center and Director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes in Baton Rouge. Van Heerden oversaw Louisiana’s coastal restoration program as an official in the state’s Department of Natural Resources
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AMY GOODMAN: Then House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, took the floor.
NANCY PELOSI: Mr. Speaker, my parliamentary inquiry is it not bringing dishonor to the House of Representatives for this body to act —
DENNIS HASTERT: The gentle lady — gentle lady is not stating a prop —
NANCY PELOSI: — in the shameful way that it did —
DENNIS HASTERT: The gentle lady is not stating a proper parliamentary inquiry!
NANCY PELOSI: — This is not part of the culture of corruption of the Republican Party to dishonor the wishes of the American people who have spoken.
DENNIS HASTERT: Does the gentle lady have a parliamentary inquiry?
NANCY PELOSI: I have a parliamentary inquiry. When are you going to honor —
AMY GOODMAN : Soon afterwards the Republican leadership tallied the vote, and House Democrats made their voices heard.
DENNIS HASTERT: Has every member voted? Does any member wish to change their vote? On this vote, the ayes are 212 the nays are 210, the majority voting affirmative. The bill is passed. Without objection the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
HOUSE DEMOCRATS: [Chanting.] Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!
AMY GOODMAN : Democrats chanting “Shame!” on the floor of the House. We’re joined now by John Walke, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. Welcome.
JOHN WALKE: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN : What happened?
JOHN WALKE: This was Washington at its worse. This vote was an abuse of power. It was an abuse of the process. The bill was pushed through without any hearings, no testimony. It was taken up in a day. Changes were made up until the last minute in the law. There was arm- twisting by the now-indicted former Majority Leader of the House, Tom Delay. There were vote switches by Republicans after this arm-twisting; and before the vote, the Republican leadership, under pressure, admitted that the bill would do nothing to affect gasoline prices, nothing to affect heating oil prices this winter.
After the vote, some people who switched their votes admitted the same thing. And now we have oil company executives saying: Thank you very much, but we still don’t plan to build any new refineries in this country, despite whatever bill you just passed. This is political theater. We had political aides to the Republicans admitting that they did this just to have a trophy to take back home during the Columbus Day recess to tell the voters that they had done something about gasoline prices. But it was a sham and it was a shame.
AMY GOODMAN : Well, the Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act was introduced last month by Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu, Democrat, and David Vitter, Republican. The L.A. Times reports this week that lobbyists representing transportation, energy, and other special interests dominated the panels advising the Senators in crafting the legislation. Most of the lobbying firms are major campaign contributors. Several have donated heavily to the campaigns of Landrieu and Vitter.
The bill’s estimated to cost $246 billion — that’s a quarter of a trillion dollars — and includes billions of dollars for business — for clients of the lobbyists. The act has been criticized as a missed opportunity to begin creative and equitable reconstruction of the devastated region. Keith Ashdown of the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense said the lobbyists were exploiting the catastrophe, saying, quote: “They’re using Katrina to get funding they haven’t been able to get in the past. You want to help the region, but the bill they put together has a lot of projects that aren’t needed. This is congressional looting at its worst,” he said.
We’re also joined by Ivor van Heerden. He served on the Senate advisory panel for the reconstruction act. He’s the Director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. You were on the advisory panel for the senators. What happened?
IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, John Barry asked me in my personal capacity to join this team, given my hurricane experience and also that I had run the state’s coastal restoration program. You know, I took it at face value. I know John well. And, you know, I obviously had some concerns, given that I’d spent many, many days in New Orleans. I’d seen the flooding. I’d seen some of the bodies. I also had concerns because I knew some of the levees hadn’t been overtopped, as was being claimed at the time. So, I immediately launched and expressed my concerns, as well as advocating that we set up something equivalent to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a nonpartisan group headed by a czar and having the good technical and scientific advisory boards or processors, and in this way we could get around federal and state agency inter- and intra-agency jealousies and turf wars.
AMY GOODMAN : And so, what happened?
IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, we – I sent out an email expressing my ideas. I was obviously very critical of the Corps of Engineers, because of the levee failures. I thought, you know, with the Corps being in charge, we hadn’t restored our coast and we had second-class levees, so we needed a different approach. I also then followed with a number of emails when the initial plan came out, expressing my concern over some of what I thought would be viewed as pork, in other words the deepening of some of the navigation channels. And the most unfortunate thing is, one of the members of the panel — at the time I didn’t realize they were all lobbyists or mostly lobbyists — then took it upon himself to try and attack me in the state of Louisiana through a series of emails; and that’s when I first really became aware that something was amiss and also first became aware that this was dominated by lobbyists.
AMY GOODMAN : And so, what is being done about this? So these lobbyists writing the legislation?
IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, I think, you know, no matter how well-intentioned the two senators from Louisiana were in trying to get this forward, they have missed the opportunity because, you know, unfortunately Louisiana has the reputation of – let me not say corruption, but, you know, of perhaps not doing things the way they should be done. And this has just played into Louisiana’s critics hands, and, you know, I think it has hurt us. Hopefully we can bounce back from this and get something truly representative of the people’s needs with the people involved making some of the suggestions.
AMY GOODMAN : Ivor Van Heerden, I want to thank you for being with us, Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Public Health Research Center. And John Walke, being here in Washington D.C., what do you think ultimately will come from this, the writing of the bills by these lobbyists, certainly not by the victims?
JOHN WALKE: Well, unfortunately, there has been a tidal wave of exploitation of the hurricanes and the victims, but the unfortunate solution coming out of Washington is to kick these victims while they’re down and to try to get away with attacks on public health protections in the Gulf and across the country. And as the other guest just informed us, it’s clear why. It’s because the lobbyists have taken over the process. There’s a raid on the federal treasury and a raid on public health protections.
AMY GOODMAN : Well, John Walke, I want to thank you for being with us from Natural Resources Defense Council.