Letter to Congress Regarding Hurricane Katrina Response

Media 10.20,05

Recipient: Senators Collins and Lieberman

Dear Senators Collins and Lieberman:

We, the undersigned organizations, are deeply concerned about the president’s failure to carry out his September 15th pledge to the victims of Hurricane Katrina to do whatever it takes “to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” The steps that the administration has taken thus far are troubling because rather than provide solutions, they are harming the effort to rebuild the businesses, homes, and lives devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Instead of delivering help for all the citizens of the region, the evidence indicates that the administration is using the devastation to eliminate laws and rules it would otherwise have to uphold.

Based on the evidence presented below, we urge you to initiate an investigation into and hold hearings on the administration’s post-Katrina and post-Rita actions to “rebuild” the businesses, jobs, homes, and lives of the Gulf’s citizens.

Cutting wages for construction workers, ignoring federal procurement practices with no-bid contracts and the exclusion of small, minority and women owned businesses, and initiating a Medicaid waiver policy that protects the federal government more than it helps Katrina survivors are just a few of the decisions the administration has made that are hurting rather than helping the region’s survivors.

We call on you to investigate why federal efforts and expenditures related to Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction are failing to comply with existing federal laws that protect civil rights, worker protections, and public health and safety.

The signatories of this letter are strongly committed to a bipartisan response to the needs of Katrina’s “internally displaced persons.” We believe that those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be best served by a collaborative effort that transcends existing political divisions, builds on our collective commitment to protect the dignity of all persons, and sustains the rich diversity of communities that are our nation’s strength. Thus, we are particularly troubled by a published report that “congressional Republicans, backed by the White House, say they are using relief measures for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast to achieve a broad range of conservative economic and social policies, both in the storm zone and beyond.” (Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2005) Politicizing the relief efforts risks putting the needs of Katrina’s victims second to an uncompassionate and miserly partisan agenda – one that distracts attention away from what should be the proper focus of providing victims with timely, much-needed assistance, and alienates potential partners in the relief efforts. Unfortunately, recent developments appear to have confirmed this published report.

The actions (listed below) taken thus far by the administration are especially troubling:

Cutting wages for construction workers in the Gulf states. On September 8, the administration issued a proclamation indefinitely suspending application of the Davis-Bacon Act to all federal construction contracts in the affected areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, regardless of whether they relate to cleanup and reconstruction. This law was passed in 1931, during the Great Depression, to ensure that federal contractors pay workers the prevailing or average wage in a region. Suspending wage protections for Gulf Coast workers will allow contractors to pay as little as they can, which could be as low as the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, in a region that already has among the lowest incomes and highest poverty rates in the country. Meanwhile, companies which received no-bid contracts profited from the wage cuts. By lowering wages and increasing income disparities, suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act will only exacerbate a disaster that has already exposed the shocking extent of poverty and income disparities in the region. We have urged the administration to immediately reinstate prevailing wages for workers in the affected counties.

Denying affirmative action employment opportunities for workers in the Gulf states. The Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has issued a three-month exemption from some existing Affirmative Action Program (AAP) requirements for new federal contractors dealing with Hurricane Katrina relief. DOL has a responsibility under Executive Order 11246 to ensure that federal contractors do not discriminate. AAP requirements are important and need to be complied with, because they ensure non-discrimination and affirmative action for equal employment opportunities for workers. There is no reason to exempt new contractors from preparing AAPs while requiring existing contractors to follow the law. We urge Congress to ensure that federal contractors receiving federal disaster relief funds fully comply with all affirmative action requirements applicable under law. Further, we have also urged the administration to reinstate the affirmative action requirements waived by OFCCP.

Ignoring federal procurement practices with no-bid contracts and the exclusion of small, minority and women owned businesses. Several large, no-bid contracts have already been awarded to some of the nation’s largest companies. These contracts failed to follow established federal procurement practices and did not provide small, minority, and women-owned businesses a meaningful opportunity to participate. In response to criticism of these no-bid awards, an announcement has been made regarding plans to re-bid these contracts and to reserve a number of contracts for disadvantaged businesses. However if FEMA had adhered to the principles of fair federal procurement standards from the outset, there would not have been a need to re-bid. In order to facilitate the maximum practicable participation of small business concerns in activities related to relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the head of any federal agency making procurements related to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should set a goal, to be met within a reasonable time, of awarding to small business concerns not less than 30 percent of amounts expended for prime contracts and not less than 40 percent of amounts expended for subcontracts on procurements by such agency related to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, respectively. At a minimum, small businesses, as defined in section 3 of the Small Business Act (15 U.S.C. 632), should be afforded the maximum practicable opportunity to participate in the contract activities, as described by law. Contracts awarded for reconstruction using federal funds should comply with Federal Acquisition Regulations and the Small Business Act (15 U.S.C. 631-58).

Provoking an ideological battle over private school vouchers. The Department of Education is proposing up to $488 million in private school vouchers to pay families displaced by Hurricane Katrina for the costs of attending private schools. Federal funds should not be used in any way that could promote employment discrimination. Nor should Congress exploit this tragedy to provoke an ideological battle over vouchers that will delay much needed aid to the students and schools affected by the hurricane. We are also troubled by proposed waivers to the McKinney-Vento Act, which bans educational segregation of homeless children. The Secretary of Education is seeking a waiver of this Act to avoid penalties for violations of the Act and allow some states to segregate Katrina victims and teach displaced students in shelters instead of local public schools. Approximately 372,000 schoolchildren have been displaced by Katrina.

Promoting a Medicaid waiver policy that protects the federal government more than it helps Katrina survivors. The Department of Health and Human Services is promoting state-by-state waivers to provide Medicaid coverage to