Do not be misled by Congress's approval of $10.5 billion in relief for the Hurricane Katrina victims. That's prompted by the graphic shock of the news coverage from New Orleans and the region, where the devastation catapults daily, in heartbreaking contrast with the slo-mo bumblings of government.
There are dozens of questions Americans will demand to have answered once this emergency has passed. If the Homeland Security Department was so ill prepared for a natural disaster that everyone knew was coming, how is it equipped to handle other kinds of crises? Has the war in Iraq drained the nation of resources that it needs for things like flood prevention? Is the National Guard ready to handle a disaster that might be even worse, like a biological or nuclear attack?
One thing is certain: if President Bush and his Republican Congressional leaders want to deal responsibly with a historic disaster of this scale, they must finally try the path of honestly shared national sacrifice. If they respond by passing a few emergency measures and then falling back on their plans to enact more tax cuts, America will have to confront the fact that it is stuck with leaders who neither know, nor care, how to lead.
The pre-Katrina plan for this Congressional season was to enact more upper-bracket tax cuts for the least needy, while cutting into the safety-net programs for sick and impoverished Americans. These are the very entitlement programs most needed by the sudden underclass of hundreds of thousands of hurricane refugees cast adrift like Dustbowl Okies. Will Congress dare to go forward with these retrogressive plans in the face of the suffering from Katrina? Its woeful track record suggests that, shockingly, the answer may be yes.
G.O.P. leaders are set to mandate billions in Medicaid and antipoverty cuts this month, while the Senate is poised to try again to repeal the estate tax, a monumental folly that will deprive the deficit-ridden government of an estimated $750 billion in vital revenue in the first decade. The theory is that over the long run, the missing money will "starve the beast" and force Washington to make huge cuts in federal programs. The public has never bought this, but as long as the economy held up, it was willing to ignore the long-term implications.
That can't be the case now, when those implications are sitting in filthy refugee centers, when the streets of New Orleans are under water and when the nation must take care of hundreds of thousands of homeless people. Yet President Bush has still managed to repeat his no-taxes mantra.
Senator Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, is now fighting for every available dollar to restore her state. Republicans had been wooing Ms. Landrieu as a possible supporter of the estate tax repeal. Now, we presume, she has higher priorities.
Washington's inspiration must now be the individual rescuers in New Orleans, who have labored so bravely and selflessly, as well as the charitable deeds of local and state governments. Houston's offer of shelter at the Astrodome has put self-regarding national politicians to shame.
Congress and the president had better get the message: an extraordinary time is upon the nation. The annihilation in New Orleans is an irrefutable sign that the national tax-cut party is over. So is the idea that American voters cannot be required to accept sacrifice or inconvenience, no matter how great the crisis. This country is better than that.