They’re Called “Emergencies” and “Disasters” For a Reason

Here’s hoping the congressional response to the tornado disaster in Oklahoma shows a little greater sense of urgency and compassion than that exhibited by the state’s two United States Senators (per HuffPost’s Christina Willkie):

As frantic rescue missions continued Monday in Oklahoma following the catastrophic tornadoes that ripped through the state, it appeared increasingly likely that residents who lost homes and businesses would turn to the federal government for emergency disaster aid. That could put the state’s two Republican senators in an awkward position.

Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, are fiscal hawks who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country. They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.

Late last year, Inhofe and Coburn both backed a plan to slash disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. In a December press release, Coburn complained that the Sandy Relief bill contained “wasteful spending,” and identified a series of items he objected to, including “$12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation activities and studies.”

Coburn spokesman John Hart on Monday evening confirmed that the senator will seek to ensure that any additional funding for tornado disaster relief in Oklahoma be offset by cuts to federal spending elsewhere in the budget. “That’s always been his position [to offset disaster aid],” Hart said. “He supported offsets to the bill funding the OKC bombing recovery effort.” Those offsets were achieved in 1995 by tapping federal funds that had not yet been appropriated.

In 2011, both senators opposed legislation that would have granted necessary funding for FEMA when the agency was set to run out of money. Sending the funds to FEMA would have been “unconscionable,” Coburn said at the time.

Events like the Oklahoma tornado are called “emergencies” and “disasters” because they cannot be strictly anticipated or budgeted for. When they occur, particularly in a big rich country, we respond, at least as rapidly and with as little initial thought about putting on the green eyeshade as in the case of military necessity. Yes, the recovery stage of any disaster requires decisions that don’t always involve saying “yes” to petititioners for help. But this sort of situation is a reminder that all the alarmist talk of fiscal hawks about a deficit and debt “crisis” looks pretty ridiculous when the real thing comes along.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.