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Union Victory In Katrina Rebuilding: Reinstatement Of Davis-Bacon.

We've all seen the devastation on television (and maybe even in person). Hurricane Katrina will have a lasting impact on the Gulf Coast region for quite some time.

The rebuilding is not going to be completed overnight, nor will it come cheaply, but government can certainly hurt or help its own cause.

One way to jump-start the rebuilding process would be to eliminate all the red tape, regulations, rules, and restrictions. For example, contractors for federal projects must follow a set of rules known as "Davis-Bacon." The U.S. Department of Labor's Davis-Bacon regulations (40 U.S.C. 3141-3148), now more than 70 years old, essentially require that companies awarded contracts play by union rules, particularly on wages.

After 35 House Republicans pushed for the temporary suspension of Davis-Bacon, President Bush went one step further and suspended the rules indefinitely on September 8 in order to speed up the reconstruction in designated areas in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Now, however, some conservative bloggers (via Instapundit) are none too happy about President Bush's decision to reinstate Davis-Bacon on federally funded recovery and reconstruction projects in the Katrina disaster zone:

This latest decision, along with the lack of vocal White House support for the Coburn amendments last week and the growing fiasco of the Harriet Miers nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court could well ignite an open revolt on the Right that could seriously damage Bush's ability to get anything through Congress for the rest of his second term in the presidency.

It is indeed frustrating to see a Republican president, with a Republican Congress, cave to union pressure on this or any other issue. But let's put this move into context.

First, check out this triumpant email from the AFL-CIO I received today:

-click for larger version-

The text (I am obviously not an AFL-CIO e-Activist, but that's okay):

Dear Working Families e-Activist,

News alert: Your activism is restoring decent pay for Gulf Coast workers!

Faced with massive public outrage, President George W. Bush is restoring wages he cut for the construction workers who will rebuild the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast.

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, President Bush signed an executive order allowing federal contractors to pay substandard wages to construction workers who will rebuild the Gulf Coast—workers who already had lost so much and were struggling to rebuild their lives and their communities.

But you and other working family activists made the difference. You sent more than 350,000 messages to Congress and the White House—and it worked: 37 House Republicans urged the White House to reverse the suspension, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) led unanimous opposition by Democrats to the president’s suspension.

We won. Gulf Coast workers won. President Bush is lifting his pay cut as of Nov. 8.

Now he must reinstate affirmative action requirements for contractors in the Gulf and end his attempts to slash programs for working families while adding new tax breaks for the rich—we’ll keep working on that and, of course, ask you to do your part.

You are a powerful force for working families. Thank you for restoring decent pay for Gulf Coast workers.

In solidarity,

Working Families e-Activist Network, AFL-CIO
Oct. 26, 2005

While the Bush administration, like all administrations, usually places floods of "grassroots" form letters into appropriate context, 350,000 messages, many of which likely more than mere form letters, from angry union members, in a short period of time, is hard to ignore.

Could conservative bloggers and/or other right-of-center folks so upset by the President's action produce anything close to those kinds of numbers to combat the union surge? With intense feelings on the issue?

Let's get real, here. Suspending Davis-Bacon was clearly the right policy decision, and good policy (in the long run) makes for good politics. But in the here and now, Bush received no substantial credit from conservatives on the issue; meanwhile, there was substantial political inertia from the media and from within the GOP itself to end the suspension. It was all downside with no upside whatsoever, politically.

But it wasn't the Bush administration that first caved on this issue. It was... you guessed it... "moderate" Republicans. Thirty-seven of them, to be precise. Mostly from Congressional districts with high proportions of union members.

Right now, there are 231 Republicans and 203 Democrats (including socialist "Independent" Bernie Sanders) in the House of Representatives (.pdf).

So, 37 House Republicans plus 203 Democrats is 240 Representatives supporting the reinstatement of Davis-Bacon. That leaves 194 on the President's side. You have to wonder, with only 35 conservative Republicans signing their names to that letter urging the President to temporarily suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, would all 194 remaining Republicans have had Bush's back on this one if it had become a bitter national battle?

Not likely.

At any rate, the point is academic, as 194 is a minority, and the suspension has been lifted.

Interestingly, Bush was criticized by some on the right for suspending Davis-Bacon, because without stringent labor rules governing those hundreds of billions in federal contracts, New Orleans was becoming a mecca for cheap Latino (illegal) immigrant labor.

Again, context. As the media have remained fixated on the inequality and poverty Katrina exposed, Bush's position was politically untenable. In this era of ever-smaller soundbites, it was difficult to justify something that cuts wages for workers, particularly with no significant conservative support on this (or nearly any) issue.

It was just a lose-lose-lose, politically, to keep the suspension active. Critics galore. Defenders few and far between. There were dozens of powerful constituencies against the President on the issue, with few (if any) conservatives actually willing to stick their necks out for him on the issue.

When the suspension does expire, it will have been 2 months from the President's declaration, which obviously has not been enough time to rebuild the entire disaster area. But it has been enough time to make a difference-- abeit a small one-- on initial recovery efforts.

So let's put this suspension into context. There have been three other suspensions of Davis-Bacon since 1931 (.pdf):

1. FDR, yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 1934.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the act in what appears to have been for administrative convenience associated with New Deal legislation. It was restored to full strength in less than 30 days with few people, seemingly, aware of the suspension.

2. Nixon. 1971.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon suspended the act as part of a campaign intended to quell inflationary pressures that affected the construction industry. In just over four weeks, the act was reinstated, the President moving on to different approaches to the problem.

3. George H. W. Bush. 1992.

In 1992, in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, President George H. W. Bush suspended the act in order to render reconstruction and clean-up in Florida and the Gulf Coast and in Hawaii more efficient. The impact of the suspension is unclear for the act was suspended on October 14, 1992, just days prior to the 1992 election. President William Clinton restored the Act on March 6, 1993.

So, three brief suspensions.

I can make one prediction for conservatives trying to paint Bush as a "RINO" or "not conservative" or whatever because of this issue: keep up the unreasonable hand-wringing, and you'll create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you abandon him, writing him off, Bush will have no political incentive for the rest of his 3 years in office to work on behalf of the controversial conservative ideas that evoke the most ire from the establishment media, Democrats, et al.

And be honest with yourselves, conservatives. Since reelection in 2004, and really throughout his entire presidency, President Bush has stuck his neck out on issue after issue. He's taken risks he didn't have to take, on behalf of the conservative movement. And, he's gotten hammered for it, again and again, in the media and the polls. If Bush were an ace pitcher in the majors, you could say he's had poor run support from his team this season. Give the man a little credit already.

Let's repeal Davis-Bacon, the entire thing, by all means, and let's do it in Congress. But put the current situation in context and don't pin the blame for its very existence on President Bush. That's the left's little league modus operandi.

Posted by Will Franklin · 26 October 2005 10:46 PM


With you all the way. Davis-Bacon probably should be replaced. But with what is a job for Congress, not the President.

The suspension may have cut a little red tape when time was essential. But it is better to recind it now. Fiddling with wages and the labor market shouldn't be on Bush's agenda right now.

Posted by: K at October 27, 2005 12:10 AM