In the dark days of six years ago, Louisiana and Mississippi staggered under the blows of America’s greatest natural disaster. But if there was one saving grace to the situation, the nation — and, finally, even President George W. Bush — got the fundamental point that an aggressive national response was required.
America was on trial, with its poor people clinging to rooftops and its government response in disarray.
Working through that crisis was tough. In some cases, vital assistance got hung up because of squabbling in Congress over emergency appropriations bills.
Some of the bills were “Christmas trees” full of unrelated “emergencies” funded in the same bills. In other cases, the Bush administration was only slowly brought around to the need for expensive recovery spending. The severity and long timeline of that crisis tested the legislative branch of government as much as it had the executive branch.
A repetition of that situation is unthinkable, and if some hurricane-hardened Louisianians found the vast pre-landfall preparations for Hurricane Irene a little over the top, there is no question that the dictum “better safe than sorry” is well-learned.
Alas, there is no such thing as a perfect lesson for the ladies and gentlemen of the U.S. Congress. With disaster aid funds drawing low — because of tornadoes, Irene, the East Coast earthquake, high water on the Mississippi River — there is a new and predictably partisan dispute about replenishing these funds.
The Republican leader of the U.S. House, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, of Virginia, is at the center of the current dispute. His suggestion, that emergency relief funds be provided by cutting elsewhere in the budget, isn’t entirely unreasonable in the context of a record deficit.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, generally backs Cantor, saying the House found “offsets” elsewhere in the budget for relief spending on the river rise this year. However, the Senate refused to go along with those offsets, and President Barack Obama called some of them irresponsible.
Get the picture? The dysfunction of the U.S. government makes the idea of fast-tracking disaster response and relief a partisan football.
Fortunately, the slow-motion nature of the Mississippi River flooding made the fights about funding less critical than they otherwise might have been. So Scalise’s point is not as good as it sounds.
“Requiring offsets for emergency aid isn’t about fiscal responsibility,” said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., “it’s about putting politics ahead of disaster victims. And that, to me, is unconscionable.”
The senator’s words are harsher than we would choose, but her point is well-taken. And it’s not really a partisan point, because Democrats in the House and Senate are just as happy to load up an “emergency” bill with Christmas-tree amendments as Republicans were in the 2005 crisis on the Gulf Coast.
In a crisis situation, are we going to rely on the single-minded political gladiators in Congress calling halftime in their bloody arena to tend to our needs in the Gulf Coast?
We hope, despite the two parties using disaster funding as another flashpoint in their never-ending debate about federal spending, that in a real crisis of the dimensions of 2005 — in which the Gulf Coast still lives — national leaders will get members of Congress working with each other for a change.
But if we take an absolute rule that disaster spending should always and forever be offset by cuts in other appropriations, we’d be living in a fool’s paradise if there comes another big storm, particularly a situation such as those facing Louisiana in 2005 with Katrina and Rita and 2008 with Ike and Gustav.
Cantor and Landrieu are right in a way, but let’s provide regular, adequate funding for disaster preparedness in the budget, and not foreclose the option of emergency funding bills that can pass Congress in time to do suffering people some good.