The House GOP’s Disaster Relief Disaster

Terrance Heath

After a day or so of public shaming by fellow Republicans like New Jersery Gov. Chris Christie, and New York Rep. Peter King (R, N.Y. 3), House Republican leadership managed a vote on Hurricane Sandy relief — albeit a meager $9.7 billion of the $60 billion requested and approved by the Senate  at the end of the last session — for states hit by Hurricane Sandy, perhaps as soon as Friday. Congress will return to the vote of the rest of the proposed aid later this month.

That the 112th Congress nearly adjourned without even a House vote on Hurricane Sandy relief is actually less surprising than the outrage of prominent conservatives over that the House leadership would not even consider not voting on disaster relief.

Christie really let House Republican leadership have it.

 As did Rep. Peter King (R, N.Y. 3).

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called it a “cruel knife in the back” to New and New Jersey. He said some Republicans have a double standard when it comes to providing aid to New York and New Jersey compared with other regions of the country suffering disasters. Somehow, he said, money going to New York and New Jersey is seen as “corrupt.”

He said those same Republicans have no trouble coming to New York and New Jersey to raise millions of dollars. King urged donors from the two states not to give money to Republicans who are ignoring their needs on Sandy.

King said Congress approved $60 billion for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 within 10 days, but hasn’t appropriated any money for Sandy in over two months.

Why does it shock Republicans like Chris Christie and Peter King that the GOP could screw its own on Sandy reliefLike I’ve said before, conservatives don’t believe government doesn’t work. They believe it shouldn’t. And when they get elected they make damn sure it can’t.

Before he was photographed visiting Hurricane Sandy victims alongside President Obama, before he was heard singing Obama’s praises, before Obama called him up and then passed the phone to Bruce Springsteen (bringing the New Jersey Governor to tears), Chris Christie was the “heartless, smug, bullying embodiment of the Republican Party.”

In June, Christie assured wealthy GOP donors at a secret Koch Brothers gathering that “pain will be inflected” when the GOP agenda is fully in place.

Here’s good old Governor Chris getting down to business with his audience of filthy rich fascists:

During the Q&A, one of the questioners wondered what Christie had learned in New Jersey that might be applied to the nation. His answer was direct: “This is not hard. We spend too much. We borrow too much. We tax too much. It is time to turn those three things around.”

“Now, pain will be inflicted when we change that,” he went on. “People are going to do with less. People who are used to having entitlement at a certain level will not have them at that level anymore. That’s the story.” Christie cited Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “courageous” and “thoughtful plan” to “fix those systems” by replacing Medicare with a voucher program.

Just before the Kochs’ guests retired to sip complimentary after-dinner cordials and plot Obama’s downfall at the resort’s Buffalo Bar, Christie delivered this closer: “Please, if you leave with just one message from me, if only one message sticks: This is a huge moment of crisis and opportunity for our country. All of you are the people who are going to lead us back to American greatness. If you care enough to do it.”

Our heroes. No wonder they love him so much. He knows exactly what these assholes want to hear — “pain will be inflicted.” And that’s what this is all about.

In August, Christie spelled out a dark agenda for America at the GOP convention, with a speech tailored to set him up for a 2016 bid.

With his calls for “fundamentally smaller government,” the shared sacrifice of Chris Christie (and Mitt Romney) falls entirely on the most marginal members of society: the seniors who rely on Medicaid to pay for long-term care, the students who use Pell Grants to help pay for their college education, the families who use food stamps to get by when the economy is tough, the children who can go to the dentist because the government has invested in their health and well-being.

Christie’s keynote clocked in at under 30 minutes, but his speech was representative of the rhetoric on display at the convention: Built on discredited ideas, it used a shell of substance to hide a cruel and selfish vision of America.

Peter King should not be mistaken with Steve King (R, Iowa), who defended his vote against Katrina aid as a “good vote.”  But Peter King’s righteous anger at Republicans callous disregard for the Sandy victims in his district, should be taken with a box of Morton’s. King’s statement during a CNN interview, “Turning your back on people who are starving and freezing is not a Republican value,” doesn’t jibe with some of King’s own votes.

Yeah! Also, hell yeah! It isa disgrace to stick a knife in the back of those hurricane victims. This is America, damnit, and we don’t turn our backs on the poor and the sick and the old and the homeless and the hungry. We help our fellow citizens in need, don’t we? And right now, the victims of Hurricane Sandy need us. What kind of party would abandon them?

Maybe the party of this heartless bastard:

  • Voted NO on Roll Call 428. (H.R. 2112) to increase funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides food to low-income children, pregnant mothers, and seniors.
  • Voted YES on Roll Call 258. (H.R. 1217) to eliminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which covered “preventive health care initiatives such as immunizations, school health centers, primary care physician training programs, and anti-obesity measures.”
  • Voted YES on Roll Call 247. (H.R. 1363) to cut $12 billion “from a number of domestic programs, including home heating assistance for low income Americans as well as clean water programs.”
  • Voted NO on Roll Call 273. (H. Con. Res. 34) to let tax cuts for the rich expire and to increase funding for, among other things, food stamps.

You get three guesses for the guy who stuck in the knife and turned his back on those starving, freezing, barely surviving fellow Americans. But I’ll bet you only need one.

Maybe Christie and King are dismayed to discover that turning one’s back on “people who are starving and freezing” is a Republican value, even if those starving, freezing folks live in a Republican district, or a state with a Republican governor.

Maybe Christie and King forgot that, just in time for the holidays, the Koch Brother’s organization, Americans for Prosperity, warned members of Congress not to vote for the Sandy relief legislation — or being targeted with primary challenges and negative ads in their next reelection bid. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, survivors were left with no power, no running water, and little food, and now face a long, slow recovery process.  For many working class people in New York and New Jersey, economic inequality will make recovery even longer and slower.

The delay of federal disaster relief further squeezes state budgets, already devastated by the recession and Republican cuts to federal state aid.  That in turn delays infrastructure repairs and relief payments that middle- and working-class victims rely on to help them rebuild their lives and communities.

In the meantime, residents who found in some cases their whole lives swept away by Sandy are out of luck. The flood-insurance program allows them only to take up to $250,000 out of it, and affected residents can receive another $31,000 from FEMA, money that can go toward temporary housing. In many cases, however, that temporary-housing money is running out too, as motel bills add up as the weeks without a home stretch on.

FEMA and the federal governments have done a marvelous job cleaning up the blocks and getting sand off the streets, but that money dries up,” said Hank Iori, a retired Rockaway resident, as he surveyed the wreckage along the beach—dilapidated homes, uprooted water and gas pipes, and rubble from collapsed seawall barriers. When the storm hit, it dumped four feet of water into his basement, and Iori had to refurbish it himself. He told of a neighbor who had to pay $1,000 to scrape mold off of her walls. But Iori acknowledges that they’re among the lucky ones, because they could afford to fix up their homes themselves.

“Every family I know has burned through whatever money has been provided,” said Matt Doherty, the mayor of Belmar, N.J. “People are staying with family and friends. It is wrecking lives.”

Tough luck, says the Koch brothers’ spokesman.

Koch’s top deputy in New Jersey, a surly gentleman named Steve Lonegan, who heads the local AFP state chapter, called the aid package a “disgrace.” “This is not a federal government responsibility,” Lonegan told reporters. “We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves.”

It seems particularly cruel that the Koch political machine would use its vast network of paid activists and professional operatives to kill this bill. For one thing, this is David Koch’s community. From his Upper East Side apartment, Koch lives only a subway ride away from the devastation in Red Hook. Notably, Koch’s group gave away free gasoline during the election in a wide-scale anti-Obama stunt, yet had nothing to give to the victims of the storm. Now, Koch, one of the richest men in the world, is actually trying to take something away from them.

Maybe Christie, King, and a handful of other outraged Republicans forgot that disdain for government is a is a Republican value. That disdain is accompanied by a disregard for much of what government does, but especially what it does for “people who are starving and and freezing.”

Disaster relief is one of this things that government does better than state and local governments.

Conservative arguments against funding FEMA hold that local communities are better at cleaning up after widespread destruction than the government. After tornadoes tore through southeastern Missouri last May, FEMA was facing a funding shortfall and deficit-obsessed House Republicans, led by Ryan’s physical and ideological twin Eric Cantor, argued that lawmakers would have to cut money elsewhere before raising FEMA’s budget. Russ Carnahan, a Democratic representative from Missouri, responded in a way that nicely summed up the sentiment after Cantor’s comments when he said, “[T]o have that debate in the face of the suffering we’ve seen in Joplin is just plain wrong.”

The problems with disaster insurance are similar to the problems with health insurance: Only people who think their house might be flooded bother to buy flood insurance, so the insurance companies risk going broke paying out all of their customers every time it floods. In general, the federal government has many more resources at its disposal than states and communities do. Damage from catastrophic events runs in the billions of dollars and devastates local economies, so states not only have to step up their spending to help hurting communities, but take a hit in tax revenues as well. Keeping the federal government in charge of disaster relief spreads risk out over the entire country, and ensures that victims in poor states—basically every state in Tornado Alley—get as much help as residents of wealthier states would.

And for conservatives, that just won’t do. Again: Conservatives don’t just believe that government doesn’t work. They believe that it shouldn’t work. And when they get elected, they make damn sure it doesn’t work. That’s why George W. Bush’s FEMA failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In a May 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA director, stated, “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management.” As FEMA was shrunk, the ability to help those in need in the event of a national emergency plummeted. Hurricane Katrina shows what happens when people who disdain government are put in charge. Conservatives dismantled the government agency, hired cronies and abdicated responsibility at every level.

… The National Guard did not enter New Orleans until September 2, four days after Katrina’s landfall. FEMA had been so dismantled that it was completely unable to assist those in need.

The rebuilding of New Orleans has been crippled by lack of government leadership. The basic infrastructure of life—schools, buses, hospitals—is not being repaired. Without it, people can’t move back and businesses can’t open.

Republicans have been trying to gut FEMA since Katrina. During the Republican primaries in 2011, “presumptive” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called disaster relief “immoral” and suggested that a Romney administration would FEMA funding.

 

By now, you’ve probably seen the video from a 2011 GOP primary debate that’s been making the rounds. It features Mitt Romney calling disaster relief “immoral” and suggesting that a Romney administration would cut FEMA funding.

First Romney says: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” debate moderator John King asked Romney.

His response:

We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.

Even if you read between the lines, as David Frum tries to do, it doesn’t come off much better. At best, Romney dodged the question. But his answer (and this is why Frum immediately pivots Obama’s answer to a question about Israel during the third presidential debate) is basically a generic version of Ron Paul’s position on the role of government.

Taking his anti-government ideology to its logical extreme, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) told NBC News’ Jo Ling Kent today that there should be no national response to Hurricane Irene, and that government responses should revert back to how they were over 100 years ago. “We should be like 1900, we should be like 1940 1950 1960,” he said. “I live on the gulf coast, we deal with hurricanes all the time.” Of course, the Gulf Coast sometimes deals with them less well thanks to a botched national response. Paul, who has called for abolishing FEMA, dismissed the organization because it is “a great contribution to deficit financing.”

Mitt’s position on disaster relief also lines up with the Heritage Foundation, which jumped on the bandwagon with an email about Hurricane Sandy this morning. Buried three paragraphs deep in that email was a reference to a post touting “individual-based” disaster relief.

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, Washington was justly criticized for the shortfalls in federal assistance.[1] However, too much attention was given to the role of government and too little to the efforts of those who can and should make the biggest difference in the critical first hours and days of a crisis-people in the communities themselves. The greatest advance that America could make in preparing for catastrophic disasters is to build better individual-based programs, a culture of preparedness, and resilient and self-reliant communities.

Achieving this goal requires thinking differently. Throwing money at states through homeland security grants or turning the responsibility over to the federal government entirely will not make Americans much safer. Instead, Washington should play a limited role, enabling and encouraging states and communities to take the lead by empowering individuals to care for themselves and others during disasters.

Leave it to the Heritage Foundation to lead off by citing a classic example of conservative failure like Hurricane Katrina to make their case. Without, of course, a hint of irony.

The Romney disaster relief model is essentially the same as the Ron Paul model and the Heritage model: “empower” state and local governments, by cutting funding and then cutting them lose.

And that’s why this goes deeper than House GOP leadership running afoul of some of the loudest members of their party. It’s bigger than getting on Christie’s bad side, and getting Peter King riled.

As with taxes, the deficit,  and any number of issues, the GOP is also on the wrong side of the majority of the American people. In October, a HuffPost/YouGov poll found that a large majority of Americans supported federal disaster relief.

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that a large majority of Americans think the federal government should help provide assistance to those impacted by natural disasters. Some politicians, including Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have in the past supported cuts for FEMA, the agency that provides such relief — though Romney’s campaign said this week that he would not cut FEMA.

According to the survey, 64 percent of Americans favor the federal government providing assistance to communities impacted by natural disasters, while only 19 percent say that relief should be left to state and local governments.

Even among Republicans, a 48 percent plurality said that the federal government should provide assistance, while 37 percent said it should be left to the states. The survey was conducted using YouGov’s online panel on Oct. 29-30 and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

That’s because the majority of Americans understand something Republicans just don’t grasp: disaster relief is one of those things we do together as Americans, because we do it better together than we ever could individually.

Individuals alone cannot build and maintain levees. Individuals do not build their own electric grids and dig their own fresh water. Instead, they pay their share—called a tax— into a collective coffer, and the taxes are used to build and maintain public goods like levees and dams. It’s a collective effort for the common good. It’s why people organize themselves into governments.

Republicans attempt to justify holding up aid for “on people who are starving and freezing,” demanding that aid first be “paid for” with cuts, because they’ve got their eye on the “real” disaster — the deficit. But it’s not really about the deficit. It’s about shrinking a government, by hacking away at hugely programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and now, disaster relief.

Republicans wrap their anti-government agenda in rhetoric about “freedom” and “liberty.” Fortunately, most Americans still insist that freedom is not just another word for “You’re on your own.”

Comments