Published January 04. 2013 4:00AM
We can only conclude that House Speaker John Boehner pulled from the floor a planned vote on $60.4 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief - already approved by the Senate - because he was not confident of support from his Republican caucus. With likely unanimous backing from Democrats in the minority, the bill would have passed with even tepid Republican help. But it appears Speaker Boehner calculated that there was so much opposition from deficit-cutting zealots in his party - already unnerved by the vote for a tax increase on the rich - that pushing the Sandy vote might have endangered his leadership position.
This block of opposition from Red-state Republicans for emergency relief to traditionally Democratic Blue states - New Jersey, New York and Connecticut - could set a dangerous precedent. Traditionally Congress has set aside partisan political and geographical differences when it came to helping sections of the country recover from major natural disasters. Now, however, we are witnessing a contingent of Republicans in the House making demands that they did not make when it was Red states facing the need for help.
In other words, the nation is witnessing a double standard. Few Americans, we trust, want a nation where Congress bases emergency relief on politics.
Stirring discontent among House Republicans are such conservative activist groups as Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action. While there is certainly some legitimate concerns about portions of the $60 billion relief package, including some funding for projects not directly related to damage caused by the superstorm, much of the criticism is far off target and ignores the fact no disaster relief bills are stainless.
Among the criticisms is $760 million for the Small Business Administration, but businesses damaged by Sandy, either by direct physical destruction or loss of business, desperately need the recovery loans that program would provide.
Critics say they don't want to approve $3.5 billion for mitigation efforts to make shoreline areas safer against rising sea levels. This head-in-the-sand approach seems to suggest it is better to pretend the seas are not rising and set the stage for greater damage after the next megastorm. They decry setting aside money to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's relief fund, acting as if no future emergencies will happen. And they certainly don't want to give aid to a favorite whipping boy - Amtrak. Perhaps they didn't take the time to learn hundreds of miles of tracks run along the coast and need repairs and improvements to protect the railroad's infrastructure in the future.
Some conservative House Republicans also want spending offsets. They will help some Blue states recover from a major catastrophe, but only if the money is cut from somewhere else.
Red-state Republicans were not demanding offsets when $62 billion in aid was rushed to Gulf Coast states just a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 (the relief aid would grow to about $120 billion). There were no demands for greater scrutiny when federal forces were marshaled to deal with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf in 2010, or to repair damage from the periodic flooding of the Mississippi River.
This new demand for greater examination of disaster aid and budgetary offsets is even more galling because many of these conservatives come from poor southern states that receive far more federal aid than they contribute through taxation. Now that three states - New Jersey, New York and Connecticut - which pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal aid need some help, cuts in that aid are demanded.
Tellingly, Northeast Republicans lashed out at Speaker Boehner and their fellow Republicans for standing in the way at a time of need. "This has been a betrayal of trust," said Republican New York Congressman Peter King. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called it "disgusting to watch one set of Republicans … trying to prove something to another set."
Under fire Speaker Boehner backed off some, scheduling a $9 billion vote today that will allow the government to meet its obligation to make flood damage payments to federally insured property owners in affected states. The speaker wants newly elected House members to take up the rest of the relief aid package later this month, with Senate reconsideration also necessary.
The best case scenario is quick action. Attempting to block or slash the relief package would set a dangerous example that Red state representatives may regret the next time their constituents need federal help.