The issue: Politics gets in the way of humanitarian response
Three months after Superstorm Sandy devastated the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York, Congress finally passed a $50.5 billion bill to rebuild homes, businesses, utilities, mass transit and other critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, thousands of those dispossessed by the storm shivered in temporary housing and shelters during the Northeastern winter.
THIS DELAY does no credit to the Congress — and especially to the hard-line Republicans who hoped to use the bill, and its obvious need, to wring more of their precious budget cuts from their more charitable colleagues. This is not only bad policy but potentially a bad precedent.
Disaster relief is passed under the rules governing emergency appropriations, money that is fast-tracked in the case of hurricanes, floods, droughts and the like. Because these are must-pass funds, members of Congress like to attach pet projects to the measures. The Sandy relief bill was no different.
Congressional Republicans rightly objected, since emergency appropriations go right to the deficit. So, stripped from the bill were $1 billion to bolster embassy security and $188 million for Amtrak tunnels under the Hudson River. These surely are worthwhile expenditures, but they should be considered under the regular appropriations process.
BUT THAT WASN’T enough for the more rambunctious members of the GOP caucus. One again, they pulled the rug out from under House Speaker John Boehner, and 179 of them voted against the relief bill, leaving the GOP leaders to rely on Democratic votes for passage.
Their objection: The relief money wasn’t “paid for” by cuts elsewhere in federal spending. In the Senate, Republican Mike Lee of Utah attempted to pay for relief through a federal spending cut of one-half of 1 percent over the next nine years. The measure was rejected 35-62.
The Wall Street Journal said the budget cuts would have been “a break from more than two decades of precedent, which saw more than three dozen disaster-aid bills passed without offsets.”
The vote shouldn’t have been even that close. We Americans pride ourselves on taking care of disaster victims first and worrying about how to pay for that generosity later. We don’t tell the victims to sit and shiver in their Federal Emergency Management Agency tents while Congress balances the budget in 10, maybe 20, years.
FINALLY, THERE WAS an unpleasant whiff of regionalism in the vote. Most of the Republicans were from the South and West — and notably weren’t talking about budget offsets and spending cuts when it came time to pay for Hurricanes Katrina or Rita.
There is a saying in Washington: “What goes around, comes around.” One hopes that the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic members of Congress don’t take their own sweet time in paying for the next Gulf Coast hurricane.