An East-coast earthquake did some damage this week, and there’s a hurricane on the way, too. It stands to reason that the federal government will have to provide some disaster relief fairly soon.

Traditionally, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. Congress has always provided emergency disaster funds pretty quickly, outside of budget caps and without trying to offset the costs elsewhere. Helping families and communities in a time of need has always mattered most.

That is, until this year. House Republicans have changed the standard.

We saw this earlier in the summer, following a devastating tornado hit to Joplin, Missouri. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he was willing to provide relief aid, just as soon as Democrats agreed to pay for it by cutting funding for a clean-energy program. His party agreed.

Now, Cantor is at it again.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday that he intends to look for offsets if federal aid is needed to help areas of his Virginia district that were damaged in an earthquake Tuesday.

“There is an appropriate federal role in incidents like this,” the Republican said after touring the damage in his district. “Obviously, the problem is that people in Virginia don’t have earthquake insurance.”

The next step will be for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to decide whether to make an appeal for federal aid, Cantor said. The House Majority Leader would support such an effort but would look to offset the cost elsewhere in the federal budget.

“All of us know that the federal government is busy spending money it doesn’t have,” Cantor said in Culpeper, where the quake damaged some buildings along a busy shopping thoroughfare.

Presumably, Cantor will say the same thing after Hurricane Irene hits the coast.

Keep in mind, even Tom DeLay never went this far. We’ve just haven’t seen a majority-party caucus this extreme in modern history.

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. That’s just not how the United States is supposed to operate.

Until now.

I can’t help but wonder why Republicans don’t hesitate to finance wars without paying for them, bail out Wall Street without paying for it, and offer subsidies to oil companies without paying for them, but when an American community is struck by a natural disaster, all of a sudden, the GOP is inclined to hold the funds until the party gets offsetting cuts.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.