New Jersey governor Chris Christie attacked Texas senator Ted Cruz on CNN today for his supposed hypocrisy in opposing relief for Hurricane Sandy yet requesting relief as Harvey devastates the Gulf Coast. Christie said:
Senator Cruz was playing politics in 2012, trying to make himself look like the biggest conservative in the world. What I said at the time, both to him and to everybody else was, if you represent a coastal state, don’t do this, because your day is going to come and you’re going to expect people to help you. I see Senator Cruz and it’s disgusting to me that he stands in a recovery center with victims standing behind him as a backdrop and he’s still repeating the same reprehensible lies about what happened in Sandy, and it’s unacceptable to me. Absolutely unacceptable. And I’m not going to let him get away from it.
Cruz claimed recently that “two-thirds” of the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, which eventually passed as the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, “had nothing to do with Sandy” and that the bill itself was “filled with unrelated pork.” Washington Post fact-checkers gave that statement three “Pinocchios” on its vaunted scale, and CNN concurred.
The claim that two-thirds of the spending in the bill had nothing to do with Sandy is not quite true, but it’s not worth three Pinocchios, whatever that denotes. Cruz is likely referring to the fact that more than 60 percent of the appropriations made in the bill would not be spent until the 2015-2022 period, as the Congressional Budget Office found — three years after Sandy touched down. Indeed, in 2013, Cruz said that “two-thirds of this spending is not remotely emergency,” which is true.
This is not to say that those funds “had nothing to do with Sandy.” It takes a long time to recover from hurricanes, for one thing. For another, the money has been used to try and future disasters, going toward flood-control engineering (which probably deserves more funding), federal flood insurance (which probably doesn’t), and the NOAA’s weather forecasting. Almost two-thirds of the funds in the bill were not due to be spent immediately, though that isn’t what Cruz said. Nevertheless, it is true that a nontrivial amount of the funds were in service of preventing future, unnamed disasters rather than fixing the damage wrought by Sandy.
What is also true is that the law set aside a tidy sum of money for localities untouched by Sandy. It provided $16 billion for the community-development fund operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, money not just for the states affected by Sandy but for any state that had suffered a disaster in the previous three years — which covers 47 of them. It also provided billions in highway funds, of which roughly half went to roads affected by Sandy.
The problem with this debate is that it’s entangled with a tricky question that isn’t amenable to fact-checking. That is, what role should the federal government play in the wake of disasters? Should it devote funds for targeted disaster relief, paying out money to the areas affected by particular events to help them rebuild? Or should it devote funds for the general purpose of disaster relief, setting up programs that can mitigate future disasters? (This is not to mention the budgetary process: can’t the NOAA get its forecasting money from a normal appropriations bill?) If you think targeted disaster relief is the right approach, then Cruz’s position, opposing a bill that included a tidy sum of money to relieve future disasters and past ones not named Sandy, seems justified. If you don’t, it doesn’t. In any case, Cruz’s position isn’t hypocritical, it is the logical consequence of the first proposition.
But the debate isn’t being conducted along these terms. It’s being conducted along Christie’s, and that’s a shame.