Houston is underwater. Rockport is flattened. And Washington, D.C., is up to its old tricks.
Hurricane Harvey has absolutely devastated Texas. The storm has already delivered possibly the worst flooding in American history, and the flood levels may even not peak until Thursday. At least 10 people have died, tens of thousands have been displaced, and thousands more are still stranded amidst rising waters.
Ordinary Texans and Americans from all over the country have responded like it's Dunkirk, coming in their own boats to rescue flooded Houstonians and answer the calls of the desperate. CNN captured the spirit of these civilian heroes in an interview with one Texas City resident about to take off on a mission. "What are you going to do?" CNN's Ed Lavandera asked the unnamed man. "Go try to save some lives," he replied, in a clip that went viral on social media.
Unfortunately, even while Texans literally bail themselves out and prepare for the deluge to come, official Washington looks to settle scores from years ago.
On Sunday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted an ostentatious declaration of support for funding federal disaster relief while excoriating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for his vote against a similar relief bill after Hurricane Sandy.
Ted Cruz & Texas cohorts voted vs NY/NJ aid after Sandy but I'll vote 4 Harvey aid. NY wont abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesnt deserve another
— Rep. Pete King (@RepPeteKing) August 27, 2017
That accusation leaves out critical context which will undoubtedly arise in any effort to appropriate money for emergency recovery efforts. The Hurricane Sandy bill appropriated $60 billion, but a significant amount of the bill didn't have anything to do with emergency recovery efforts. Billions of dollars within the bill didn't go to the New York and New Jersey areas affected by the hurricane. It included, among other items, $2 billion for highway upgrades across the country, $150 million for fisheries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, a boost to Amtrak subsidies, and $16 billion in block grants to 47 states and territories.
Cruz, Rand Paul, and other Republicans didn't oppose emergency spending for hurricane-stricken areas. They opposed the use of emergency funds for non-emergency spending, an effort that conveniently bypassed some of the self-imposed spending limits Congress had placed on itself earlier. Rather than take up these spending priorities as part of normal budgeting, legislators took advantage of the crisis to lard up the bill with self-serving pork — and then painted critics as heartless and cruel when they objected.
However, history also cuts in the other direction. In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit, some Republicans demanded cuts in federal spending to offset the emergency funds for the Gulf disaster zone. Vice President Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana, told ABC News that "we simply cannot break the bank of the federal budget," and that spending on "big-ticket items" had to be curtailed to fund Katrina relief. That also put the normal budgeting process ahead of the emergency. If offsets were needed, Congress had plenty of time to address that in later budget talks, just as 47 states could argue for their $16 billion in development block grants from long-past disasters during normal budgeting after Sandy relief.
This time around, Congress must do better. The people of Texas, and probably of Louisiana as well by the time Harvey finishes wreaking its destruction, will have an urgent need for long-term investment in their recovery. Those who attempt to exploit this tragedy to fund their own agendas need to be exposed for their opportunism. While Texans, first responders, and the National Guard risk their lives to help the victims of this natural disaster, they deserve a singular focus in emergency relief spending.
What are we going to do? We're going to rebuild lives and communities. That's the mission for Congress now. Let's get this one right.