Lobbyists line up to claim shares of disaster wealth
Even farmers outside the affected areas use Katrina and Rita to plead for cash.
WASHINGTON -- With Congress dangling as much as $200 billion in hurricane-related aid, lobbyists for oil companies, airlines, manufacturers and others are clamoring to get their share.
"It's been all Katrina all the time, and now it's Rita, too," said J. Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & amp; Jensen PLLC, a top lobbying firm in the capital. "Except for the Supreme Court, hurricane recovery is what Congress will be up to, so we have no choice but to adapt."
Lawmakers are receptive to many of these requests, congressional aides said. For example, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, is moving legislation this week, much of it recommended by lobbyists, that would waive regulations to help oil companies build new refineries. The reason: The hurricanes drew attention to the nation's dependence on a small row of Gulf coast refineries.
Oil lobbyists, like so many others, are using the storms as an excuse to win long-sought legislation, even when their plans relate only tangentially to the hurricanes.
Earlier this week, groups as diverse as the American Institute of Architects and the American Petroleum Institute were freshening their requests for tax breaks and other favors. The architects changed "Katrina" to "hurricane disaster" in their pitch.
The troubled airline industry has been particularly active on the hurricane front. Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. are trying to include relief from their pension obligations in hurricane legislation this year. The firms, which have been pressing for the change since the spring, are telling lawmakers that the fuel price increases in the wake of Katrina have made the aid more necessary.
"Katrina adds an urgency," Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson said. So far the proposal remains stalled.
The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, is seeking a national change in response to the regional devastation. It wants Congress to waive for a year the 4.3 cent-per-gallon tax on jet fuel, a plan that would cost $600 million. "Katrina exacerbated an already untenable situation with respect to the price of oil on our industry," association President James May said.
"I am quite confident there will be many who make that charge, that we are self-serving," May said. "But I am equally confident that the impact that Katrina had on this industry is real."
Insurers have been using Katrina as an argument for approving their long-held top priority, an extension of the Terrorism Reinsurance Act (TRIA), which provides for the government to pay a portion of the damage caused by a foreign terrorist attack over certain thresholds. To illustrate the tie between the hurricane and the legislative effort, Carl Parks, senior vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, has coined the term "KA-TRIA."
Farmers, even those outside the disaster zone, are begging for hurricane cash. "It is important to remember that the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina is harming much more of U.S. agriculture than producers in those three states," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, wrote to legislators. "As the Senate and House Appropriations Committees prepare to address this natural disaster, we urge you to include emergency disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers."
The nation's for-profit hospitals are trying to persuade Congress to carve an exception into a decades-old law specifying that only nonprofit institutions qualify for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild critical facilities after a natural calamity. "Storms do not damage hospitals based on their ownership status," said Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents investor-owned hospitals.
The change for hospitals would not apply only to those damaged by Katrina. Coorsh said the group would like Congress to grant for-profit hospitals permanent access to FEMA funds wherever a natural disaster occurs. The federation sought the same change, unsuccessfully, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Travel Business Roundtable, a coalition of chief executives of hotel, restaurant and other travel-related companies, is campaigning for a host of grant, tax-cut and loan relief proposals, all specific to the storm-affected region and time limited. "We're not going to be irresponsible," said Charles Merin, the roundtable's chief Washington representative.