CONGRESS AND KATRINA CHALLENGES
Congress faces challenges this year: securing our nation against terrorism; supporting our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world; controlling spending and encouraging a prosperous economy; and addressing issues like education, ethics, health care, energy, agriculture and technology. While this agenda is important, our state still faces Hurricane Katrina needs and the Mississippi delegation will continue addressing those priorities in 2006.
Under the leadership of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, the Senate Appropriations Chairman, Congress passed a $29 billion aid package shortly before Christmas to provide housing, infrastructure, education, health-care and agriculture emergency relief funds. Important inside that package are funds to provide grants for homeowners outside the federally designated flood-plain to rebuild their homes and restore their communities. The federal government has designated $85 billion to hurricane response and recovery since August 29, 2005.
Also in December, we passed the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005, an $8 billion tax incentive package to maintain and attract jobs to the Gulf Coast. That legislation creates incentives for business to reinvest and rebuild on the Mississippi Coast. It encourages companies to maintain their payrolls and protect the jobs of hard working Mississippians. There are provisions to help students go back to school, to help families afford housing, to help communities rebuild and help the state with new bonding authority for debt restructuring. This tax relief package increases options available to individuals, families and businesses by removing some of the government's tax burden from victims of the storm.
We have more to do. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 includes a provision to provide $2 billion in federal funds for Mississippi and Louisiana to cover state Medicaid costs. This provision covers the entire state share of Medicaid in Mississippi for eight and a half months, freeing up the Mississippi state budget to cover other emergency necessities. The Deficit Reduction Act narrowly passed the House of Representatives before Christmas, but after minimal changes were made in the Senate, partisanship in the House prevented the measure from passing by unanimous consent. But we will pass the measure again this year and Mississippi will receive the needed budget assistance.
Senators Cochran and Trent Lott, Governor Haley Barbour, and me and my colleagues in the House will continue to meet, develop strategy and seek sound and effective policy from Congress to the benefit of Mississippi's recovery.
In representing Mississippi, the delegation is charged not only with taking our state's needs to Washington, but also in attracting notice of Mississippi from around the country. Visits by President George W. Bush and the First Lady, by senators and congressmen, bring attention and media to Mississippi to remind the nation of our situation, our challenges and also of our successes.
On January 12, President Bush returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and he noted what many Mississippians feel, that the national media often focuses more attention to our west to New Orleans. While no one in Mississippi wants to diminish the damage, the need and the rebuilding effort of the Crescent City, it was Mississippi where Hurricane Katrina plowed ashore destroying all in her path. On the day of President Bush's visit, Shepard Smith (a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi) of the Fox News Channel took his crew across the Coast to film current footage. He told a national audience of the destruction, of the volunteers helping to rebuild, and made a plea to the rest of the country not to forget Mississippi, and to try to find a way to personally help the Gulf Coast area.
On January 20 the House Committee on Hurricane Katrina will visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and meet with mayors, visit damaged communities and see first hand the destruction which still remains. I serve on this committee along with Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor, and we will be hosting these other Members of Congress from around the country to share with them the Mississippi experience. This follows on a recent trip by several senators from other states who visited the Gulf Coast as well.
Finally, First Lady Laura Bush is making another trip to the Coast soon as she continues her focus on encouraging the private sector and faith-based organizations to play a role in hurricane recovery. These organizations responded first, best and most effectively in the immediate days after the hurricane and transported food, water, ice, clothes, medical supplies and shelter to those in need without the burdens of government bureaucracy. Today, these churches and organizations remain on the Coast clearing debris, rebuilding homes, caring for families who have lost everything and meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.
We all have roles to play in the restoration of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: individuals and families; nonprofits and the private sector; the media; local, state and the federal government. Whether it is taking Mississippi priorities to Washington, or bringing Washington officials to Mississippi, the Congress will continue our work in Hurricane Katrina recovery. Our role in Washington is not over and we will continue to move forward to serve Mississippi priorities and Mississippi values this coming year in Congress. We look forward to your input as we do.
Congressman Chip Pickering serves Mississippi's Third Congressional District. In his fifth term, he is Vice-Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and assistant majority whip. He serves on the Bipartisan Select Committee on Katrina Response. For more columns and news visit his web site at www.house.gov/pickering online.