Political Animal


May 27, 2011 10:45 AM They’re called ‘emergencies’ for a reason

By Steve Benen

I’ve been writing a lot this week about congressional Republicans’ new approach to disaster relief funds in large part because I find it rather amazing, even for a contemporary GOP that no longer seems capable of surprising.

For all of our differences over party, ideology, and creed, we know that when disaster strikes and our neighbors face a genuine emergency, America responds. We don’t ask what’s in it for us; we don’t weigh the political considerations; we don’t pause to ponder the larger ideological implications.

We act. It’s who we are; it’s what we do.

The problem isn’t that conservative Republicans necessarily disagree with this principle. Rather, the problem is, they place other principles above this one when prioritizing how and whether to act.

While much of Joplin, Mo., is still under rubble from a devastating tornado, conservatives in Congress are starting to argue for a tougher approach to disaster aid, demanding that any funding be offset by cutting federal money elsewhere.

Disasters will no longer be considered “emergencies” if conservatives win this battle to redefine the way Congress funds aid packages for states and cities stricken by natural and man-made catastrophes. […]

Traditionally, the government has responded to disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and acts of terrorism — by using its power of the purse to aid the affected areas with “emergency” dollars that add to the debt because they don’t count against annual spending caps.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, a vocal minority in the House called for offsetting tens of billions of dollars of spending with cuts to other programs. At the time, House Republican leaders shut them down. But now, as much of the Southern and Midwestern parts of the country have been hit by a series of catastrophic acts of nature, that vocal minority has become a controlling majority — at least in the House.

It was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who presented the new way of looking at disaster relief. He was willing to approve a $1 billion emergency package for Southwest Missouri, but on a condition — he wanted to cut money from a clean-energy program to pay for it. His party agreed.

The callousness becomes even clearer in the larger context. If the oil industry wants taxpayer subsidies, conservative Republicans don’t blink, and certainly don’t wonder how we’ll pay for the incentives. When Wall Street needed a bailout, the entire Republican leadership was on board with writing a very large check, without much thought to fiscal responsibility.

But when working-class communities get slammed by a natural disaster, through no fault of their own, suddenly the GOP grows miserly. Republicans’ first thought isn’t, “How can we help these struggling Americans get back on their feet?” Instead, it’s, “How will we block disaster relief aid unless we get corresponding spending cuts?”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Steve on May 27, 2011 10:50 AM:

    The Senate should simply pass a clean disaster relief bill and see if the House Republicans are willing to vote it down.

  • Hannah on May 27, 2011 10:51 AM:

    Not only that, I read yesterday that they cut $1.5 billion from the fuel-efficient auto program but only allocated $1B of that to aid. The other $0.5B just went away.

    And how ironic that currently it's the red/deep red states that are getting hit with tornadoes. Do Republican/Tea Party reps from MO, OK, AL, etc. agree with Cantor? What happens if Cantor's district is hit with a hurricane? Will he demand the same cuts?

  • Okie on May 27, 2011 10:54 AM:

    This will make a great campaign commercial to run against Missouri's Republican congresscritters. The text almost writes itself:

    "Joplin was devastated by a tornado last year. We asked Washington for help. But Reginald Doofus and his Republican caucus let our storm victims suffer while they insisted on offsetting spending cuts in programs they don't like and never did. Call Congressman Doofus and tell him what you think of his holding Missouri storm victims hostage to his ideology."

  • just bill on May 27, 2011 10:58 AM:

    i don't suspect that the folks of joplin, mo. are going to care much for these antics.

  • paul on May 27, 2011 10:59 AM:

    This is what hostage takers do when they think they've got negotiators on the ropes.

  • TR on May 27, 2011 11:00 AM:

    First they drive away seniors by targeting Medicare, and now they're fucking with disaster relief in the South and Midwest?

    Are they actually *trying* to go extinct as a party?

  • max on May 27, 2011 11:01 AM:

    Never interrupt the GOPers when they are calling in airstrikes on their own bunker.

  • Anonymous on May 27, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Cantor's intellectual make-up denies him the reflection he is engaged in quid pro quo, tit for tat, mealymouthed I'm in charge idiocy regarding the shear misery suffered by fellow Americans!

    For this, Eric is a true Putz! -Kevo

  • Breena on May 27, 2011 11:04 AM:

    My first thought is these are states that won't look kindly to the GOP at election time. But then again, people vote against their best interests all the time. It's just that the GOP is starting to blatantly show their true nature and it ain't pretty.

  • T2 on May 27, 2011 11:08 AM:

    The problem Cantor has ( besides the obvious lack of humanity) is that lots of states devastated by natural disasters have GOP governors. These governors are being asked to save lives in their states, and in most cases having looted the states coffers with tax give-aways to Big Corporate, have no money. So they need Federal money but find themselves screwed by the Party they belong to.
    Take Rick Perry of Texas for example. Here's a guy who actually discussed secession, who campaigned so hard against the Federal Government, but now is groveling at Obama's foot for disaster relief. But its Cantor, the GOPer, who is refusing to help disaster victims.
    Perry will soon probably jump into the GOP pres race - proving to all that in the world of politcs no one is more a hypocrite: He rails against the Federal Government at every opportunity but then wants the job of running it.....go figure.

  • berttheclock on May 27, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Sadly, in 2012, the citizens of Western Richmond, Mechanicsville, Culpepper and other parts of the Shenendoah Valley will re-elect Cantor. However, I do trust his actions will aid the Democratic Party to move him into the minority of the House, come January 2013.

    Hey, Lisa Meyers, as you were born in Joplin, why don't you concentrate more on Cantor. You went after the Clintons with a vengenance during Whitewater and, your latest foray is against Edwards. Try a RepuG, such as Cantor, this time. Lisa, you might earn a Peabody yet.

  • LosGatosCA on May 27, 2011 11:14 AM:

    In the worship of money, there are no innocents. Either your disaster relief has to be offset or tax cuts for the top 1 per cent are required.

    It's written in the 10 commandments Rick Santelli received from the Republican Money god when he parted the Hudson River so Ayn Rand could reach Wall Street.

  • jpeckjr on May 27, 2011 11:20 AM:

    While I think the Republicans are being morally vile and politically stupid in this matter (well, I think that about them generally), I have to ask for clarification on the legislation being discussed.

    A $1 billion emergency package JUST FOR JOPLIN?! Are none of the other areas with natural disasters this spring going to receive any aid at all? Lots of House districts have emergency needs these days.

    Steve, can you provide a bill number for this legislation? I really want to read it. Because, frankly, it if is for Joplin only, I'd vote against it myself.

  • September on May 27, 2011 11:22 AM:

    I think Cantor may be pissed because VA was refused disaster assistance for tornadoes earlier this month.


  • Anonymous on May 27, 2011 11:22 AM:

    @Okie -- nearly perfect!

  • mellowjohn on May 27, 2011 11:30 AM:

    Steve @ 10:50...
    can't do it. the senate repubs would filibuster it.

    "1988 cressum?" a great vintage.

  • Mark D on May 27, 2011 11:36 AM:

    When I first read about this move by Cantor I could barely type -- my hands were literally shaking with rage.

    I went to college in Springfield, which isn't far from Joplin, and have two fraternity brothers who lost EVERYTHING. Thankfully, it was just stuff, but there's almost no way to truly understand the devastation. This is as close as it gets to getting it:


    So when I hear about some fucking piece of shit heartless asshole like Cantor denying these funds unless he gets his way -- especially when he happily voted in favor of adding $6 TRILLION to the deficit when he and his GOP buddies were running things -- I just want to punch the guy. Hard. In the balls. Repeatedly.

    I can guarantee this move isn't sitting well around here. Sadly, not sure it'll be enough to convince what is a really red area to switch to blue. One would think it would be enough, but ... well, people vote against their own interests all the time, so ...

  • Houndour on May 27, 2011 11:38 AM:

    There must be a bolded bullet point in some Republican-tainted laptop somewhere about how the natural disasters caused by climate change will in the future represent a massive bargaining chip to use in shredding the U.S. safety net and attacking other Democratic priorities. From the debt limit hostage-taking to Cantor's disaster-relief extortion, the modern GOP seems awfully cavalier about the well-being of the United States and our long-suffering people.

  • Trollop on May 27, 2011 11:49 AM:

    "We act. Itís who we are; itís what we do."

    That statement is completely untrue, we have no energy policy for a sustainable future, we're mired in a partisan stalemate, 3/4 of the population is actually more worried about where they're going in the afterlife with greater concern than where they are today (delusions of grandeur and psychosis not withstanding), liberty and civics are down, corruption and wealthy salaries are up. This is not a nation of "We act" unless you mean "we act" like we're responsible stewards of our own well being..

    Waiting for the SSRI..

  • jpeckjr on May 27, 2011 11:58 AM:

    @September. Helpful information.

    FEMA has thresholds for providing assistance, both the minimum amount of damage before assistance is provided and maximum amounts to individual cases. Those thresholds, I believe, are written into FEMA's enabling legislation which would have, you know, passed Congress. FEMA reform legislation passed Congress after Katrina. If the VA storms did not reach those thresholds, FEMA would turn down the request.

    I mean, we wouldn't want to politicize disaster relief, now would we?

    My Captcha code for this message is "sinise attitude."

  • TCinLA on May 27, 2011 12:06 PM:

    For all of our differences over party, ideology, and creed, we know that when disaster strikes and our neighbors face a genuine emergency, America responds. We donít ask whatís in it for us; we donít weigh the political considerations; we donít pause to ponder the larger ideological implications.

    Actually, the Bush White House did exactly all of the above with regard to Hurricane Katrina. They saw it as a chance to change the demographic map of New Orleans and make Louisiana reliably "all read" and they did it. And the Republican Party thought it was a great idea.

  • Zorro on May 27, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Note: no cuts are needed to enact tax cuts for billionaires, since they're clearly an objective good. But relief for people who, I dunno, JUST LOST THEIR BLEEPING TOWN? Sorry, we can't afford that. We can give them all tax cuts, though.

    Getting tired of sighing,

  • Just a guy on May 27, 2011 12:07 PM:

    I would say that every Republican since 1980 seems to have been raised by wolves, but that insults wolves. Coyotes seems more likely. Road kill scavenging, flat-meat eating coyotes.

  • Steve on May 27, 2011 12:21 PM:

    If the Senate Republicans filibuster a clean disaster relief bill... even better! They wouldn't, though.

  • Curmudgeon on May 27, 2011 12:30 PM:

    The bitter truth is that present-day Republicans don't care if poor people crawl into a ditch and die. They really don't. Even the few alleged "moderate" ones will end up sticking to the party line when push comes to shove. It's despicable.

  • John on May 27, 2011 12:44 PM:

    So when I hear about some fucking piece of shit heartless asshole like Cantor denying these funds unless he gets his way -- especially when he happily voted in favor of adding $6 TRILLION to the deficit when he and his GOP buddies were running things -- I just want to punch the guy. Hard. In the balls. Repeatedly.
    Mark D on May 27, 2011 11:36 AM

    Trust me, you are not alone in that feeling Mark D! Cantor is a miserable bastard, as worthless a piece of human scum as has ever befouled Congress (and that is definitely saying something). He and his repugnant cohorts -- all these "Reagan Republicans" -- have never held a real job, struggled to pay bills, worried about their credit rating being smashed because they got "downsized," etc.; in short, all the things regular people face every day. They are no different than the pampered, powdered elite of Versailles, and deserve the same fate. Bring back the guillotine!

  • N.Wells on May 27, 2011 12:45 PM:

    Republiscum "principles":
    1) Everything should be looked at through the lens of what's best for the Republican party / megacorporations / the very wealthy. No tragedy should go unexploited in this regard (Katrina, 9/11, economic crises, ....)
    2) There's only so much money, so it's especially important to channel as much of it as possible into the hands of the megacorporations and the very wealthy.
    3) If no crises present themselves at appropriate times, create some.

  • Tom Nicholson on May 27, 2011 1:01 PM:

    When the snows out West start to create massive flooding, don't even think for a minute to ask Cantor for a dime!

    When the radiation from Japan infects Hawaiian seafood, don't even contemplate asking Cantor for a penny.

    When a Cat 5 hurricane slams Miami this summer forget asking for help, there won't be any money left anyway.

    Disasters should not be the political playground of tiny minds!

  • KurtRex1453 on May 27, 2011 2:12 PM:

    Cowards all. It is easy to sit by and do nothing cutting budgets while people are suffering. It is harder and more noble to fix the problem.

  • nerd on May 27, 2011 2:35 PM:

    This is all gamesmanship. The GOP plays these games because it can. They get away with it when the other players don't pay attention to the rules.

    The game as played by the GOP is to make the other side look bad, primarily with non-fact based issues. The Democrats should let the GOP hoist themselves on their own petard.

    The way for Democrats to play the game is to bring a clean aid bill to a vote. When the GOP votes it down use that in campaign ads in 2012.

    The Democrats need not play the game the way the GOP does, but they can use the rules to their advantage. So far they haven't.

    The GOP is playing for the long term. The Democrats have been focusing on the battles. It is time for things to change.

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 27, 2011 3:05 PM:


    Dear Joplin,

    Are we learning anything?

    --Un"real" America

  • exlibra on May 27, 2011 4:55 PM:

    People like Cantor realise that, as we continue to sock it to Mama Nature, she'll continue to retaliate with ever more disaster "events", each more vicious than the one before. That means more and more money will be needed to keep rebuilding.

    And where's the money to come from? The rich, like everyone else, have had their spending cut to the bone -- their taxes are either almost non-existent or loopholed into nonexistence already; what more can be cut to provide the relief money?

    Captcha says "curAIV possible". Sure, pumping money directly into the veins of a disaster area is a possible cure. But, like I asked before: where's the money to come from?

  • ChrisNYC on May 27, 2011 6:05 PM:

    I wish we would stop talking about the GOP having any principles. The current crop just doesn't. They are dedicated to nothing other than their individual self-interest. It's really not about Cantor choosing debt reduction over emergency relief. It's his saying, "Here's a way that I may be able to score points. That may benefit me. My responsibilities as an elected official, those don't matter."

  • Crissa on May 28, 2011 12:40 AM:

    Anyone see the irony in cutting out energy independence that Cantor selected?