Politics & Policy

No, It’s Not Hypocritical to Want Targeted Disaster Relief

Homeowner surveys Hurricane Harvey damage in Rockport, Texas, August 26, 2017. (Reuters photo: Rick Wilking)
The Texas congressmen took the correct view of Sandy funding.

As Hurricane Harvey moves through the Gulf Coast, a very misleading story is making the rounds: Texas senators and congressmen who, in 2013, heartlessly opposed relief for the localities rocked by Hurricane Sandy are now begging for the same. The wake of a catastrophic hurricane might seem a strange time to score political points, but various media outlets (and Republican congressman Peter King of New York) have endeavored to do just that. The story is, in their telling, a parable of Republican hypocrisy: Oppose federal funding on “principle” no matter how just the cause, and when you need money, toss your “principles” out the window and beseech the government. In this case, however, those principles are genuine and the supposed hypocrisy is anything but.

Understanding what actually happened when Congress provided disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy is the first step to understanding why this isn’t the scandal some apparently think it to be. A month after Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in November 2012, the Obama administration requested $60 billion in appropriations for disaster relief. That request eventually passed in the form of the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. Before it did, however, the Congressional Budget Office found that more than 60 percent of the funds included in the draft bill would not be spent until at least 2015. Leave it to the text of the House version of the bill, H.R. 152, to describe the funding package best: “Supplemental appropriations . . . to improve and streamline disaster assistance for Hurricane Sandy, and for other purposes.”

Other purposes indeed. The bill had provisions involving fisheries in Alaska and New England, which had suffered their own disasters; upgraded Amtrak lines, which had been largely unaffected by the storm; set aside money for highway improvements throughout the entire country; and devoted funds to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help it improve its weather forecasting. It also set aside $16 billion for a community-development fund that would send money not just to states affected by Sandy, but to any state that had declared a disaster within the previous two years — a criterion met by all but Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina. Provisions such as these more usually go through the normal budgetary process; here, they were jammed into a bill that simply had to pass.

In terms of pork-barrel spending, this is the essence of treif.

Sure enough, some Republicans opposed the pork-laden bill. Among those were Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, along with several House Republicans from Texas. But that was not because they hated Sandy’s New York victims — “They hate us for our values!” — but because they subscribed to the proposition that disaster-relief bills should be targeted to relieve disaster. Much of the bundle of bacon that politicians squeezed into the Sandy relief bill had nothing to do with even the general category of hurricanes, much less Hurricane Sandy. If anyone was cynically exploiting a natural disaster to score political points, it was not those who opposed the bill but those who designed it.

For his part, Cruz said at the time that Congress had “appropriately responded with hurricane relief,” but that “cynical politicians in Washington could not resist loading up this relief bill with billions in new spending utterly unrelated to Sandy.” An aide to Senator Cornyn told National Review that the Sandy law “unfortunately contained provisions unrelated to the storm,” and noted that Cornyn “voted for a Sandy aid package without this unrelated spending.” To these senators, it seems, the pork was dispositive.

The tune they’re sounding now isn’t really that dissonant from their earlier position. “Hurricane funding is a very important federal responsibility,” Cruz said yesterday. “The focus of emergency relief shouldn’t be cynical politicians trying to fund their pet projects,” he continued. That’s consistency, not duplicity.

The GOP congressmen are being consistent, not duplicitous.

To what extent the federal government should (or can) help the victims of natural disasters is a subject of vigorous debate. Not all the appropriations in the Sandy bill were outright ludicrous in substance: It’s prudent (and becoming more so) for coastal towns to have protection against floods; it’s important that the NOAA is able to forecast impending weather events. On the other hand, the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ballooned, and some research indicates that the federal government can be an ineffective or even counterproductive actor in the wake of emergencies. But how much money to devote to FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers is a matter that ought to be decided through the standard budgetary process. A disaster-relief bill should include funds for . . . disaster relief. That happens to be what Texas politicians are asking for.

They’re doing their jobs. They were doing their jobs during the Sandy saga, too.


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