Call it logrolling or one hand washing the other, a generally recognized fact in Washington is that if you want something for your district, it pays to agree to the same thing for another guy's district.
That point may have been lost on three Louisiana congressmen when they voted against a $50.5-billion relief package for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. The 2012 storm ravaged coastal communities in New Jersey and New York. Now they're in the position of needing the same sort of aid for their own state. How will that play out?
The three lawmakers, all Republicans, are Rep. Steve Scalise (currently the House majority whip); Bill Cassidy, who moved up to the Senate last year; and John Fleming. They're all likely exemplars of another Washington truism: fiscal responsibility is great, until it's your own district that's getting fiscally hammered. Then Job One becomes working to "help the residents of the threatened areas in their time of need."
Fleming, Scalise and Cassidy, by the way, are also climate change deniers, a sign that they're unable to process evidence in front of their own eyes. Fleming has claimed that evidence of climate change is the product of a "radical environmental agenda." Scalise has griped that it's an effort by radicals "to prop up wave after wave of job-killing regulations that are leading to skyrocketing food and energy costs." Cassidy in 2014 claimed that global temperatures had not risen in 15 years, which happened to be untrue. Remarkably, both Fleming and Cassidy are medical doctors.
No one is saying that the flood-stricken communities of Louisiana don't deserve all the assistance that the U.S. government can provide them. But so did the residents of the Sandy zone. How do the lawmakers' 2013 votes to deny relief to those Northeast communities square with their demand for emergency flood assistance now?
"Apples and oranges," says T.J. Tatum, a spokesman for Scalise. To begin with, he explains, the money sought under the disaster declaration has already been appropriated; the declaration is merely a formality needed to authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start spending it in the disaster zone.
The Sandy relief, by contrast, was supplemental relief to cover recovery and rebuilding in the wake of the disaster. Scalise and Cassidy, according to their spokesmen, actually voted for a $17-billion initial appropriation for that purpose. But they balked at a further $33-billion chunk. A spokesman for Fleming's office didn't return our call.
Because the two appropriations were bundled together in a final bill on Jan. 15, 2013, they voted the whole package down. (It passed the House anyway, 241-180, and the Senate followed suit two weeks later.)
Scalise and Cassidy said their objection actually had been that the House had failed to offset the Sandy appropriation with federal budget cutbacks elsewhere. "Paying for disasters and being fiscally responsible are not mutually exclusive," Scalise said at the time.
But they almost certainly knew that their proposed offsets were sure bill-killers: They would have eliminated mass transit subsidies for federal workers and certain agricultural subsidies, among other things. When an amendment to require those offsets was voted down, Scalise, Cassidy and Fleming rejected the $50.5-billion total, including the initial $17-billion piece.
Some fellow lawmakers warned them that their position could come back to bite them in a sensitive spot later. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — who was defeated by Cassidy in 2014 — called the demand for budget offsets "a dangerous precedent" serving only "an extreme, tea party ideology."
Indeed, the funds made available through the emergency declaration are likely to be a drop in the bucket compared to what ultimately will be needed in Louisiana. FEMA will spend several million dollars on emergency housing and other aid. But the final toll could be well into the tens of billions. Initial estimates in Baton Rouge, covering about half of the parishes hit by the flooding, are that 110,000 homes worth a total $20 billion have been damaged. Business losses and reconstruction costs will come to much more.
These are the categories covered by the Sandy appropriation that Louisiana's lawmakers voted down. Tatum, the spokesman for Scalise, says he's not sure how the members will deal with that demand. The state's congressional delegation will meet next week "to determine what the appropriate legislative response should be."
Plainly, an insistence by lawmakers from outside the flood-stricken region on budget offsets resembling what the Louisiana congressmen demanded will delay that relief; that's what happened with the Sandy package, which was deferred for weeks by the budget dickering.
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