Nothing can repair the lost homes and shattered lives of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But the task of rebuilding can be made easier. In a posting at OpinionJournal.com I suggest that President Bush follow the example of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and his own father. All were presidents who suspended the federal Davis-Bacon Act in the face of a local emergency. The Davis-Bacon Act requires that workers on projects using federal dollars in effect be paid union wages. That raises the costs of construction by up to 38%.
Davis-Bacon also requires that wage information be provided to contractors ten days before bidding on projects begins. However, the General Accounting Office has found there is often a delay of two weeks between the time when the Department of Labor issues rates and local officials receive them. Meanwhile, construction projects cannot begin until the new rates are received.
In 1999, the Senate failed to pass an amendment that would waive Davis-Bacon rules on federal reconstruction in areas declared national disaster sites. Perhaps it's time for Congress to revisit that issue.
A natural disaster like Katrina is also an opportunity to cut through red tape and streamline procedures for getting work done. In 1994, the Northridge earthquake knocked down two sections of the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, the world's busiest thoroughfare. Governor Pete Wilson promptly offered an extra $200,000 a day for every day the repair work was completed ahead of schedule. The contractor finished the project 74 days ahead of schedule, less than three months after the damage had been done. The director of Caltrans, the state's transportation agency, estimated that without the accelerated effort, the project would probably have taken two years to complete. Similar urgency measures should be applied to restore key bridges like the one connecting New Orleans with Slidell across Lake Pontchartrain.