They’re called ’emergencies’ for a reason

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?”