A Conversation with Rep. Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is meeting Wednesday with community members in New Orleans. She's among 28 House Democrats visiting the Gulf Coast region to assess recovery efforts. She talks about the federal government's role in the cleanup with Farai Chideya.

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ED GORDON, host:

As we mentioned, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi meets with community members in New Orleans today. She's among 28 House Democrats visiting the Gulf Coast region to assist recovery efforts. Earlier, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Representative Pelosi about her trip to the area.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (House Minority Leader; Democrat, California): This is not my first visit to the Gulf Coast, so I came here to measure progress. And while I have seen some, it is by no means what it needs to be in order to make the lives of the people here whole.

I see optimism. I see confidence in the future. It's been a day of renewal with the religious community and rebirth for the entire community. A lot of the hope they have springs from their faith, and their faith in the federal government has not been well founded.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Well, let's talk about a little bit more about that. There was allocation of $110 billion to really help the Gulf Coast. And from what I understand, less than $50 billion of that has actually been spent. At this point, what needs to happen to get the rest of the money to the communities and what should that money be used for?

Rep. PELOSI: Very little of that money has reached the people. It was only in June that the Republican Congress finally enacted needed housing money for homeowners in Louisiana 10 months after Katrina, and none of that money has reached the homeowners. So it's the combination of the slow process exacerbated by the red tape, compounded by the layers of sub-contracting that siphons off money that should be going directly to people.

There's a problem here. This is again an unprecedented natural disaster, and it's being met with a very ordinary response.

CHIDEYA: So you and the other Democratic leaders are down touring the region, listening to people, but are you also going to present a plan for action?

Rep. PELOSI: Well, the 28 of us who've come down here for this trip have come down to listen. We - again, most of us have been here before, so we can compare and contrast what we've seen before. But as we go forward, we know a few things. We know, first of all, that we need an independent commission. We look at this not to assign blame and point fingers but to find out the ground truth of what happened here and how things could have been different.

There has to be anticipation in the federal government as to what our role should be. There has to be litigation on the part of homeowners and business owners and the rest to protect themselves as fully as possible to prevent some of the damage.

But they're also has to be confidence. And when you have incompetent cronies engaged in corruption, as was the case one year ago here on the part of the federal government, the people don't stand a chance. So what we want to do is set a new direction that's based on confidence, professionalism, and putting people first.

CHIDEYA: You speak of cronyism, incompetence, widespread critique of the federal government's response and of President Bush' actions, but how can you forge a partnership in a divided country, politically, that would allow the people in the Gulf Coast to rebuild? Don't you need to extend to a certain extent an olive branch to the president and to the Republican Party in order to make things work for people down there?

Rep. PELOSI: We have to put people first. And whatever we do, we have to get the job done for them, and we have to find common ground to do that. But we can't do it if there's denial on the part of the administration as to what the course of events is here, the state of progress, as well as the fact that over a $100 billion - that's what the president keeps saying - over a $100 billion has been appropriated.

Well, that does not translate into $100 billion worth of progress. If it did, things would be a lot better here. So we have to work together, but we have to start with the truth and we have to have trust. And that's what we're striving for. And we certainly have a responsibility to work in a bi-partisan way to get that done.

CHIDEYA: You've criticized a federal court's decision that a Gulf Coast couple can't expect their insurance company to pay for damage caused by Katrina's storm surge. How many families do you think are being impacted by this ruling and what would you do, or what can you do in Congress, to change how that system of insurance works?

Rep. PELOSI: I don't know all together how many families are affected, but I know that every family who was at the town hall meeting in Mississippi was affected by it. And when there's total disregard for the insurance claims of a large class of people, that it borders on fraud and it really deserves a very serious look by the federal government.

Because if your home is completely destroyed, just wiped off the face of the earth, and the insurance company says the burden of proof is on you to prove that it was wind, not water, that caused that damage, you can't possibly prove that case. And so I think that we have to take a look at what's the truth in advertising. Again, truth and trust.

CHIDEYA: What would or could you do in Congress to make sure that people know what they're getting when they buy home insurance?

Rep. PELOSI: Well, without painting the entire insurance industry with the same brush, let me just say this - that some insurance companies that claimed to be a good neighbor are not necessarily at home when something happens. So the Congress doesn't have as full a role in oversight over the insurance industry as it does over other industry, and that's a problem all of its own.

But I do think that more hearings should be held the examine the record to see what was promised, what was delivered, and who bears the burden of proof when the home no longer exists.

CHIDEYA: When I was just down in the Gulf Coast, in New Orleans specifically, visiting again after, you know, the year after I was first there post-Katrina, and then six months later, and then went back. Renters are in desperate shape because they have no equity whatsoever. The rents have increased by sometimes 50 percent. People are paying double what they used to.

And the city's wage base is not that strong. And so you've got people who don't make a lot of money now finding themselves having to cram into small spaces with friends and family members just to stay in the city. What should be done about that on a federal level, if anything?

Rep. PELOSI: Well, that is related to the cost of insurance as well. Because many people - some people who told me that they rented to others didn't know how long they could sustain their operations. Because when their insurance goes up as much as it's going up now - if they can get insurance - then of course they have to pass that on to the renters as well.

So this is a challenge of Biblical proportions. It is the fact that the homes, business, schools, healthcare, every aspect of a person's life, and the federal government, in my view, has fallen far short of the challenge to conscience that this disaster has posed to our country.

CHIDEYA: On a larger level, so much of this disaster has to do with poverty. On Tuesday, the Census Bureau reported that 37 million Americans still live under the poverty line - about the same as last year - and it's the first year that it hasn't increased since President Bush took office.

So what lessons can you and your colleagues learn about how to deal with poverty from Katrina?

Rep. PELOSI: Katrina is sort of the canary in the mines. It just spoke so loudly and clearly about poverty in America in a way that people weren't able to ignore. One in five children in America lived in poverty. Two wages earners in a family making the minimum wage working full-time are still below the poverty line.

And we have to address these disparities in income and equity in our country if we're going to maintain the democracy that we're so proud of. So what we want to do is lift people up into the middle class. A strong and growing middle class is essential. Living in poverty is problematic for families; but when disaster strikes, it's hell to be poor.

CHIDEYA: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, thanks for joining us from the Gulf Coast.

Rep. PELOSI: Thank you so much.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

A side note: we invited Representative Pelosi's Republican counterpart on the program, House Majority Leader John Boehner. He was unable to participate.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, are male college athletes using laws meant to help females? And Jesse Jackson heads to the Middle East. And Annan booed. We'll look at the continuing crisis. All that and more on our Roundtable.

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