By MARSHA MERCER
After the horrific tornado in Oklahoma and as another Atlantic hurricane season starts, it’s a good time to think about federal disaster aid. You may have heard politicians in Washington insist that there’s no debate about funding disaster relief. Don’t believe it.
Everyone wants to help the 12,000 families whose homes were destroyed in Moore and Oklahoma City, Okla. The path of devastation is as heartbreaking as the victims’ spirit is inspiring. Fortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund can handle whatever part of the estimated $2 billion in damages is not covered by insurance.
That’s great, and it means nobody in Congress has to cast a difficult vote against aid to people who obviously need it. Now let’s think ahead. We still could have more tornadoes. The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. Activity in the Atlantic is expected to be above normal.
The good news for Oklahomans is that FEMA’s disaster fund has $11.6 billion, more than enough to cover expected tornado losses. What happens if we have more tornadoes and a bad season of hurricanes? In the current austerity environment, no one should be surprised to see a repeat of previous squabbles on Capitol Hill about disaster aid.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ran into a buzz saw of criticism this week when he said that he “absolutely” would require any disaster relief for his state to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. At least he seemed consistent.
Coburn and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., were among 36 Senate Republicans who voted no earlier this year on a $50.5 billion emergency funding bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy. The lawmakers objected because the costs weren’t offset by spending cuts and because the bill included extraneous measures for other states.
When Coburn said he’d apply the same standard to his own state, he got creamed in the social media. He issued a rebuttal and went on the media circuit, claiming he has always supported disaster aid – as long as it goes to the victims of disasters and not to other projects.
“I supported a scaled-down $25 billion version of disaster aid for Sandy, but I strongly opposed a $50 billion package that was an all-you-can-eat buffet for politicians and politically connected contractors,” Coburn wrote in an op-ed on CNN.com.
Coburn also contended the news media had created an issue where none exists. Because the money is already in the FEMA fund, no funding bill exists and no vote is required, he said. You could get whiplash trying to follow such arguments.
For his part, Inhofe argued that relief for Oklahoma would be “totally different” from the Sandy relief Christmas tree bill. People in Oklahoma wouldn’t exploit the tragedy as people in other states had done, he explained.
Contrast Coburn and Inhofe with Rep. Tom Cole, the Republican who represents Moore in the U.S. House. Cole supported the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims. He said his hometown was only “one tornado away from being Joplin.” He was referring to the 2011 tornado that tore apart that Missouri city.
“I just didn’t know it’d be quite this quick,” Cole told NPR in an interview this week. His own home in Moore is only a minute’s walk from the path of destruction, he said, but it was spared this time, as it was in the equally horrific tornado of 1999.
If Moore was one tornado away from Joplin, and we know it was, we’re all one disaster – tornado, hurricane, earthquake, fire, flood -- away from Moore. We don’t know when the worst might come. We want to believe Congress will be there for us.
And so we’re back where we were last October when Hurricane Sandy hit. Congress eventually approved emergency supplemental funding for Sandy victims, but only after adding some extraneous projects. The additional projects weren't directly related to the need, but they insured that the bill passed.
When the next need arises -- as it inevitably will -- cannot Congress do what is legitimately needed without the histrionics of insisting that it be paid for immediately?
Congressional Democrats and most Republicans like to say that disaster aid is in a category of its own, and victims need help when they need it. We may learn in the next six months whether the politicians mean it.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.