The art of compromise, otherwise known as you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, has all but disappeared from the halls of Congress in recent years. And that may put more than 20 members of the Texas congressional delegation in a bind when relief for the victims of Hurricane Harvey comes up for a vote.
The representatives, and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, all voted against a $50.5-billion relief package for victims of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy when it came before them in January 2013. (The measure passed anyway.) Although the shape and size of a relief package for victims of Harvey won’t emerge for at least several months, it’s clear that a big one will be needed. Damage estimates from the storm still pummeling the Gulf Coast around Houston have reached $40 billion, and are likely to rise.
Texas is almost certain to pose a drain on federal emergency resources for the indefinite future. “FEMA is going to be there for years,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Sunday on CNN.
Texas lawmakers haven’t yet been asked how they will vote on the inevitable package. But on Friday, even before Harvey’s landfall, Cruz and Cornyn sent a letter to President Trump asking him for a major disaster declaration. Trump issued the declaration that evening.
Lawmakers and others from the New York-New Jersey region that sustained the heaviest damage from Sandy, moreover, have signaled that they’ll be on hypocrite watch when it comes time to vote on Harvey aid. “1 bad turn doesn’t deserve another,” Republican Rep. Peter King of New York wrote in a tweet directed at Cruz. In a second tweet he pledged, “I won’t abandon Texas the way Ted Cruz did New York.”
On Saturday, the New York Daily News was quick to underscore the irony in Cruz and Cornyn scurrying to secure emergency assistance for their home state after voting against Sandy relief. “The devastation of Hurricane Harvey has two-faced Texas politicians looking for the same sort of relief funding they flatly opposed five years ago,” the newspaper reported.
Of the 24 GOP members of the Texas House delegation in 2013, all but one voted against the Sandy relief package in 2013. The one “yea” vote was Rep. John Culberson, whose district includes Houston. But seven other Houston-area congressmen voted the package down. All 12 Democratic members of the delegation voted in favor of Sandy relief with the exception of Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents central Houston and didn’t cast a vote. Three Republicans and two Democrats in office at the time of the vote are no longer serving in Congress.
Most of the lawmakers who commented on the 2013 Sandy appropriation couched their opposition in terms of fiscal responsibility. The issue, they said, was that the Sandy bill had been larded down with non-Sandy and non-emergency spending. “Emergency relief for the families who are suffering from this natural disaster should not be used as a Christmas tree for billions in unrelated spending," Cruz said then.
Others demanded that every dollar spent on Sandy relief be balanced by a dollar cut somewhere else in the federal budget. As I wrote last year, when Louisiana congressmen who voted against Sandy were tasked with securing relief for victims of Hurricane Matthew, this position elevated the ideology of the balanced budget to an article of faith. Notably, the lawmakers insisting on a one-for-one trade-off against Sandy aid were never specific about where the cuts should come from.
A second ideology undergirding hostility to Sandy aid was climate change denial; virtually every lawmaker who voted against the package had also denied or expressed extreme skepticism about climate change, even though it may well have magnified the impact of of the storm on low-lying districts, and may well have contributed to the devastating potency of Hurricane Harvey. As I reported then, tying climate change to specific weather events is difficult, but climatologists say that among the likely consequences of climate change is an increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms like Matthew and Harvey.
The biggest factor influencing the Sandy vote, however, may have been the disappearance of bipartisan comity from the halls of Congress. The process may be denigrated as “logrolling,” but the idea that every legislator is going to need something from his or her colleagues at one point or another is ingrained in history. When a Mississippi flood displaced 600,000 residents of the Delta in 1927, for instance, Rep. Phil Swing personally led a congressional tour of the region. Swing represented California, 1,800 miles away, so what was he up to? Simple, he was preparing the ground for a flood control project for his home district, the Imperial Valley. He sponsored the Delta restoration bill and got his wish — congressional funding for what we know today as Hoover Dam. Both regions reaped decades of benefits.
The breakdown of partisan and regional cooperation has been compounded by the substitution of ideology for foresight. That’s a particular danger today, when the possibility — nay, probability — of future devastation from climate change, not to mention other natural occurrences, is staring us in the face. As Rep. Frank LoBiondo, (R-N.J.), called to GOP holdouts after their 2013 vote against Sandy relief: “Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations, did you get rid of the Andreas fault? The Mississippi's in a drought. Do you think you're not going to have a flood again? Who are you going to come to when you have these things?”
We’ll know soon enough. The bills for Harvey will be coming due very, very soon.