Politics & Policy

Paying for Irene Relief

Paul Krugman, in a column that for him counts as a measured attack on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has seemingly loosed every counter-GOP signifier a la mode: “extraordinary nihilism,” “sabotage,” and “blackmail” all make appearances, the “hostage takers” metaphor is dusted off for another go-round — there is even a McCarthyism non-sequitur. All this because Cantor has the gumption to suggest that new federal spending on hurricane disaster relief should be offset by cuts elsewhere. That is, the idea that a political party should use the means at its disposal to advance its stated policy goals is unprecedented and, according to Mr. Krugman, “flout[s] all the usual conventions of fair play and . . . decency” in the American political system.

Needless to say, this is wrong on several levels. On the narrower question of whether offsets for disaster relief are unprecedented, they are not. President Clinton signed legislation on at least four occasions that offset billions in disaster spending — including spending in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. On the broader question of whether Cantor’s position amounts to an instance of “hostage taking,” it does not. The Left would have us believe that those affected by Hurricane Irene will languish in mildewed rubble until Mr. Cantor gets what he wants. Unfortunately, on this score, even Republican governors of storm-stricken states have been unhelpful. “Our people are suffering now,” said New Jersey’s Chris Christie in a representative statement, and Congress should “figure out budget cuts later.” But in fact, the Republican House already has. Bipartisan legislation that replenishes FEMA’s emergency funds to the tune of $1 billion, with offsets, has passed the House and awaits action from the Democrat-controlled Senate. Any delays in the disbursement of aid will not be the House majority leader’s doing.

What the majority leader and House Republicans have done is hewed to what ought to be a wholly uncontroversial principle of government: that the state’s proper resources are limited and that choices must be made between competing priorities. In this case, the Republicans have sought to repurpose funds that were originally appropriated to a green-cars initiative in the Department of Energy’s loan-programs office — the same shop that made headlines this week when Solyndra, the solar-panel manufacturer it underwrote with a half-billion dollars in loan guarantees from the stimulus bill, went bankrupt. Thus Democrats and Republicans alike should thank Cantor and GOP leadership for making this particular choice so easy. Instead of raiding entitlements or nipping from defense spending, they’ve been asked to choose between helping the victims of an unpreventable disaster or further subsidizing the electric-car division at Government Motors. Would that all budgetary choices were so obvious.

Cantor’s position also helps bring attention what Veronique de Rugy calls “The Never-Ending Emergency.” Since 1980, “emergency” or “supplementary” appropriations over and above normal budgetary authority have nearly quadrupled, reaching a peak of $174 billion in 2009. To be sure, Republicans share the blame for this, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been largely funded through emergency appropriations. But President Obama and the Democratic Congress wasted no time filling out the trend line with massive levels of supplemental domestic spending, proving the exploitation of “emergencies” to be one of the most pernicious ways that Big Government frees itself of even the modest fetters imposed by pay-as-you-go rules.

Pushing for offsets on disaster spending evinces exactly the kind of vigilance required to reverse this trend. Though the victims of storm evoke our sympathies and make convenient props for the Democrats, now is no time for fair-weather fiscal responsibility. 

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