The people of storm-ravaged New Orleans lost some of their sway over federal hurricane reconstruction efforts this week when House Democrats removed recently re-elected Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The body oversees revenue-raising measures as well as welfare programs including Social Security, unemployment benefits, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, all critical in helping storm survivors rebuild their lives.
His replacement is Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who accepted the seat with an understanding that he'd give it up if Jefferson is cleared of the charges against him, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Jefferson is under FBI investigation over allegations he accepted cash in exchange for doing favors on behalf of private companies. He was also accused of abusing his office by having National Guard troops check on his home and retrieve some of his belongings after Katrina.
Davis is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which pressed for member Jefferson to keep the seat unless actually convicted of the charges. The FBI raid on Jefferson's Congressional digs in May -- the first-ever such raid of a member's office -- was controversial because of its apparent violation of the Constitution's separation of powers clause. Though the U.S. Justice Department is currently reviewing some documents seized in the raid, other material is being reviewed by a federal court.
In an interview with The Hill, Caucus Chair Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said that denying a seat to a Congress member under investigation is unfair to his constituents:
"There is no historical standard or precedent for removing someone from a committee, and ... to do so disadvantages the member's constituents; it doesn't punish the members," said Watt.
Fortunately for the hurricane-beleaguered citizens of New Orleans, Davis has promised he'll be an advocate for Katrina survivors, the Times-Picayune reports:
Davis said he continues to have a strong interest in Katrina recovery efforts and will be happy to work with Louisiana lawmakers on solutions to speed up the recovery.
Davis represents Alabama's so-called "Black Belt," which also felt the storm's impact. The name was originally given to the area because of its rich soil, but it later came to designate the counties where blacks outnumbered whites. This is how the Institute for Rural Health Research at the University of Alabama describes the area today:
The Alabama Black Belt extends from Mississippi's border through the heart of the state. From DeSoto's meeting with Tuskaloosa to the birth of the Confederacy and the civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century, it was here that some of some of Alabama's most significant historical events occurred. It is an area rich in cultural traditions and the strength of its people. Unfortunately, however, it is also an area in dire need, confronted with economic stagnation, declining population, and insufficient health care and schools.
Katrina caused some damage in the region, but it was relatively minor compared to what Louisiana and Mississippi suffered. But because Alabama's Black Belt emerged from the storm relatively unscathed, it became a refuge for thousands of the displaced, putting considerable stress on communities so rural they had no local agencies to coordinate volunteer assistance. In response, FEMA created two programs -- The Black Belt Counties Katrina/Rita Long Term Recovery Organization and Operation Katrina Homecare -- to bring together federal, state and local organizations to help meet the needs of the displaced.
Davis has been an outspoken critic of FEMA's bungled response to Katrina. In a statement made from the House floor on Sept. 7, 2005, he demanded that President Bush own up to the agency's incompetence:
The country needs this President to admit that his government failed; the country needs this President to come here and say that the standard that was set by FEMA last week is one that was unacceptable for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana; and the country needs this President to name this as the disaster that it was. I cannot say it nearly as eloquently as our friend and colleague, the gentleman from Georgia (Mr. Lewis), but our country is embarrassed when we have power and do not use it intelligently and effectively. Our country is embarrassed when we have the means, the capacity and the ability to know what was happening last week, and still fail to adequately respond to it.
Davis went on to indict America's tolerance for the desperate poverty revealed by the disaster:
We owe people in this country a better place than the margins of life. There are people who, because of their own faults and their own demerits, end up in a particular place. We understand that. We know that. The Bible tells us that. But we ought to be strong enough and bold enough as a country to not let people who are trying to live their lives fall into the margins because we do not care enough to build a net around them. The absence of a net in New Orleans, the absence of a net in Mississippi, the absence of a safety net in much of the South, was laid bare last week, and we ought to be moved by that.
Davis was also one of five Congress members who on Sept. 9, 2005 wrote a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spelling urging her to establish an initiative to track and assist affected high school seniors to ensure graduation, immediately transfer impacted college students, quickly restore storm-damaged campuses, and guarantee teacher transfers, including pension portability.
Less than a week later, Davis introduced three pieces of legislation designed to help Katrina survivors: The Emergency Savings Relief Act of 2005 (H.R. 3733) would allow them to withdraw funds without penalty from certain retirement accounts, the Emergency Medicaid Relief Act of 2005 (H.R. 3735) would suspend proposed federal cuts to Medicaid budgets for 29 states including Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that were scheduled to take effect Sept. 30, and the Displaced Citizens Voter Protection Act of 2005 (H.R. 3734) would give Katrina survivors the same right to vote by absentee ballot while temporarily displaced as citizens serving in the military. None of the bills came up for a vote.
Davis along with other CBC members also sponsored legislation calling on Congress to create a fund similar to one set up after the 9/11 attacks to restore hurricane victims to pre-Katrina conditions. The NAACP, National Urban League and AFL-CIO endorsed the measure, but it gained little traction in the Republican-controlled body. And Davis co-sponsored legislation introduced earlier this year by Jefferson that directs the Treasury Department to carry out a program to temporarily make payments under residential mortgage loans for properties significantly damaged by Katrina.
Working in a town that values carefully calculated rhetoric, Davis has earned a reputation for being a straight-talker. It won him a place on CNN Correspondent Jeff Greenfield's list of 10 lawmakers he dubs the "The No-Bulls- - - Caucus," published in the January 2006 issue of Playboy.
Indeed, Davis has been willing to criticize the Bush administration. Speaking on a Center for American Progress panel on Sept. 16, 2005, Davis said he didn't think the administration's botched response to Katrina was necessarily racist but illustrative of the belief that the media exaggerates the plight of the poor:
"There is the potential that Hurricane Katrina and all that flows out of it will be an epochal moment for this generation of Americans," Davis said. "It may remind us just how separate and disparate our fortunes are from each other in the United States of America."