Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and a month after promising in a nationally televised speech to help rebuild the region "quickly," President Bush has settled on a cautious, piecemeal approach that even many members of his own party fear will stall reconstruction and sow economic disarray.
Bush has made highly publicized trips to Louisiana and Mississippi on average of once a week since the storm, but the administration has yet to introduce legislation for two of the three proposals the president highlighted during his September speech from New Orleans.
...Despite mounting evidence that Washington is having trouble putting to use most of the $62 billion in emergency funds approved by Congress so far, the president has resisted appointing a recovery coordinator or further detailing his vision of how to tackle rebuilding. In interviews last week, he explained that he wanted state and local officials to act first.
...Bush's cautiousness appears to be partly a response to some conservatives' clamor for federal budget cuts to offset aid to the Gulf Coast.
...In addition, the scale and complexity of reconstruction pose special challenges for an administration that firmly favors market mechanisms over government action, at least domestically.
With the immediate crisis past, administration officials may be hoping that state and local efforts - and the free market - will relieve them of the thorniest decisions, as well as a substantial chunk of the estimated $200-billion price tag for the region's revival.
However, a variety of prominent Republicans warn that the president's approach is a recipe for trouble.
"So far, all we've done is shovel money out the door to meet the humanitarian needs," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "But henceforth, we've got to be very careful how we spend the money, and that means we're going to need a plan and somebody in charge."
..."With all due respect to the president, things are not going to bubble up from the bottom," said Jack Kemp, who was Housing and Urban Development secretary under President George H.W. Bush. "There has to be some federal leadership here."
Without clear signals from Washington, some reconstruction decisions are essentially being made on autopilot, raising the risk that the region and the nation will repeat past mistakes.
...Aides said officials were working behind the scenes to ensure that all of the proposals unveiled by the president in his New Orleans speech became law. (In addition to the worker accounts, Bush called for a Gulf Opportunity Zone, or GO Zone, that would provide tax breaks and loans to small businesses, as well as an Urban Homesteading Act that would give low-income families surplus government property and favorable mortgage rates in exchange for the promise to build homes.)
Meanwhile, administration budget officials are preparing another emergency spending bill - this time for about $20 billion, much of it for such clearly defined projects as rebuilding military bases and a NASA facility. The aides said that Bush had not ruled out proposing a reconstruction "czar" or coordinator, though such a post could not "compete with state and local decision-makers."
But if administration work on reconstruction is proceeding, it seems not to be occurring with anything like the urgency and decisiveness that Bush suggested it would when he stood before the cameras in a darkened and largely deserted New Orleans for his Sept. 15 address.
The president's shift from such bold rhetoric toward talk about the limits of federal involvement and the need for local and private-sector leadership is at least partly traceable to an unexpected revolt by congressional conservatives recently...
As the full dimensions of the rebuilding task become clear, Democrats and some GOP leaders are calling for a degree of government involvement that the president almost certainly finds objectionable. The White House appears to be searching for a way to put primary responsibility for coordinating the work on state and local officials...
By offering tax breaks and encouraging local leaders to come up with rebuilding proposals, the White House implicitly hopes Gulf Coast residents solve the riddle themselves.
But [Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.)] thinks that's unlikely. Last week, he proposed that Washington create a Louisiana Recovery Corp. aimed at making commitments to rebuild whole communities at once, so that residents have the assurances they need to invest there. The corporation would be able to borrow from the government and financial markets, buy up ruined areas and hire developers to rebuild them. Homeowners and local businesses could sell their storm-damaged properties to the firm or reserve spots in the rebuilt communities. If they refused to do either, the corporation could take the properties by eminent domain.
In a separate proposal, conservative Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called for a Cabinet-level Gulf Coast Recovery and Disaster Preparedness Agency, which would be the conduit for all federal funds to the region. A companion agency with a board of mostly state and local officials would come up with the rebuilding plan...
White House officials have all but rejected the Gregg-Kennedy proposal and offered only a polite nod to the Baker plan.
The administration has "bought into the idea this should be a bottom-up thing," Gregg said. "The danger is confusion, inefficiency and huge bureaucratic frustration."
...Bush is playing to similar mixed reviews in Washington, where fellow Republicans as well as policy analysts usually sympathetic to the administration said they had been baffled by an apparent lack of follow-through after the New Orleans speech...