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Editorial: Disaster Area; Even Emergency Aid Divides Congress

Saturday, May 25, 2013
There’s nothing like the need to quickly respond to the victims of a natural disaster for inspiring Americans to overcome their squabbles, divisions and resentments and unite for the purpose of collectively extending succor and relief.

Yeah, right.

Even the crying need to come to the aid of tornado victims in Oklahoma was not enough to allow members of Congress to break their habit of transforming all agenda items into ideological standoffs. In this case the rift was over whether Congress should unconditionally declare its readiness to provide whatever aid was needed or, instead, to first make a stop at the Altar of Fiscal Responsibility and pledge to offset whatever is spent on disaster relief with spending cuts elsewhere.

Interestingly enough — and, goodness knows, these congressional faceoffs are getting less and less interesting — the call for budgetary prudence came from a most unlikely source: One of Oklahoma’s own senators, Tom Coburn, said that any disaster relief that couldn’t be covered by the federal government’s designated reserve fund should be balanced with spending reductions so that it didn’t add to the nation’s debt. Even accounting for the fact that Coburn is an ardent budget hawk and a political free-spirit, it takes an abundance of either principle or insensitivity to extol frugality when the people back home are hurting.

In any case, Democrats weren’t shy about expressing how appalled they were that Congress couldn’t focus exclusively on delivering aid as quickly and effectively as possible. And sure enough, some Republicans quickly came to the defense of Coburn, praising him for showing “real leadership,” in the words of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Not all Republicans embraced stone-heartedness as the official policy of the U.S. Senate when dealing with natural disasters. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., demonstrated uncharacteristic humanity — or, more likely, characteristic political savvy — when he suggested that the federal government needed to first assess the scope of need before elected officials bickered over how to pay for the response.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a replay of the fight over the disaster relief effort after Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the mid-Atlantic coast. Republicans’ attempts to turn emergency aid into another budget battle back then were so off-putting that Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, found himself praising the countervailing efforts of President Obama.

It’s a safe bet that most Upper Valley residents, particularly on the Vermont side of the river, cannot watch this particular fight with usual dispassion. When Tropical Storm Irene destroyed homes, roads and bridges in the state, nobody did more to begin picking up the pieces than Vermonters themselves — not just state officials, but neighbors and volunteers. But federal aid — delivered via the Federal Emergency Management Agency — was also crucial in providing the money to undertake the reconstruction of the state. Yes, FEMA was bureaucratic, occasionally slow and sometimes unresponsive. But it’s hard to imagine where the state would be today if it hadn’t received the help extended by the federal government, acting on behalf of fellow Americans.

So, we don’t really care what the federal budget situation is — if people somewhere in the country need the help of the federal government in rebuilding their lives after a natural disaster, we say that Congress should dedicate itself to figuring out how to deliver whatever help is needed, and as quickly as possible. To do otherwise isn’t responsible or prudent; it’s heartless. A spiritual deficit can destroy a country every bit as much as a fiscal one can.

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