Whenever an extraordinary event such as Hurricane Harvey occurs, there will be those who implore us not to “politicize” it. But this impulse is exactly wrong, because politics is the process we use to decide how we will collectively approach challenges and problems.
So there’s never been a better time to ask how our government responds to natural disasters, and how the two parties react when confronted with immediate public demands for help.
Today, many people - both Democrats and Republicans from the Northeast - have noticed that Republican politicians in Texas are asking for immediate federal help for their constituents in the Houston area, yet five years ago when Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast, those very same Republicans were unwilling to help.
This looks like garden-variety parochialism and hypocrisy, of the kind both parties are guilty of from time to time, right? Wrong.
Here’s the truth: There are some kinds of hypocrisy both Democrats and Republicans engage in, but this isn’t one of them. When there’s a natural or human-made disaster and people are crying out for aid, virtually all Democrats say, “The government should help.” Lots of Republicans, on the other hand, say, “Is this happening to our people? If so, then yes, the government should help. If not, screw ‘em.”
The background is that after Sandy left its path of destruction up the east coast, Congress put together a $50 billion recovery package that passed in January 2013. But many Republicans, including most of those from Texas, decided that the bill was “pork” and opposed it.
In the House, it passed by 241-180, with only one Democrat voting against it and 192 voting in favor. Among Republicans, however, 49 voted yes and 179 voted no. In the Texas delegation, 23 of 24 Republicans voted no. The vote was similar in the Senate: All the Democrats voted yes, while 36 Republicans voted no and only 8 voted yes. Among those 36 were Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas.
It’s true that there were some other versions of the bill floating around that some Republicans preferred, including one that would have offset the aid with cuts to domestic programs - in other words, using the relief bill as a vehicle to achieve some of their longstanding policy goals - but when the final vote came, they showed where they stood.
If you look at the response to these two hurricanes, it’s tempting to use the word “hypocrisy” to describe the Republican reaction as many are doing. “The congressional members in Texas are hypocrites, and I said back in 2012 they’d be proven to be hypocrites,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie yesterday.
That’s true as far as it goes. But the problem is that we tend to believe that everyone in Washington is a hypocrite - they like filibusters when they’re in the minority but hate them when they’re in the majority, they hate the courts meddling with legislation when the laws they pass get struck down but beg the courts to strike down the other side’s laws, and so on. That runs the risk of making us believe that it will only be a matter of time before a similar situation comes up and Democrats (and those moderate Northeastern Republicans) show how they’re just as prone to narrowly serve their own constituents’ interests.
But that won’t happen. Just you watch: When they finally pass a bill to help rebuild Texas after these floods, there will be debate about the provisions, but when the final vote comes, nearly all Democrats will be in favor of it, because they think that the government should help its citizens, even if most of those particular citizens in this case live in a red state. “Republicans must be ready to join Democrats in passing a timely relief bill that makes all necessary resources available through emergency spending,” Nancy Pelosi said Monday.
Of course the two parties have different ideas about the proper scope of government. But only one party is being consistent in how it applies its philosophy. Whatever else you might say about Democrats, they don’t play into the juvenile belief so many Americans have that government should be as small and light as possible, stepping gingerly aside as we go about our lives, and yet it should also solve all our significant problems. Republicans appear to believe that disaster relief is one of the important things government should do - but it depends on where the disaster hits and which Americans are affected.
That’s more than just hypocrisy. And it’s not something both sides are guilty of.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.