Michael Hiltzik Columnist
Column

Republicans claim they voted down the Sandy relief bill because it was filled with pork. Don't believe them

A platoon of Texas lawmakers who voted against aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2013 are scurrying to explain their votes in advance of being asked to vote for the same relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The explanation they’ve crafted almost unanimously to avoid being tagged as hypocrites is that they favored Sandy relief, but the bill they were presented as senators and representatives was filled with unrelated pork. As supporters of fiscal responsibility, you see, they simply couldn’t in good conscience vote for the $50.5-billion relief measure.

Don’t believe them. According to an incredibly detailed analysis performed in 2013 by the Congressional Research Service, virtually every cent of the Sandy relief bill was related to damage from that storm.

Nevertheless, both of the state’s senators and all but one of its 24 GOP members of Congress voted against the Sandy relief bill. Depicting the bill as a side of pork is their story, and they’re sticking to it.

Sen. John Cornyn explained on Tuesday, rather uneasily, that he voted against the bill “because it included other things that weren’t Superstorm Sandy-related.” And here’s Sen. Ted Cruz, speaking to NBC News: “It was a $50-billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” Back in 2013, Cruz similarly damned the bill as “a Christmas tree for billions in unrelated spending.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service begs to differ. The CRS went through the bill line by line, comparing every provision both to President Obama’s original funding request and to a House measure that the Senate had passed before reaching agreement on a final version.

The Sandy relief bill eventually passed in the House 241-180, with all but a single nay vote coming from Republicans. (The outlier was Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee, an extreme budget deficit hawk in a conservative district.) It passed in the Senate 62-36, with every nay vote coming from the GOP. Nine Republican senators voted in favor.

What was in that bill?

As the CRS determined, every provision was justified either as relief to the immediate victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as recovery and rehabilitation of buildings and services that had been damaged by the storm, or as preparatory work for the next storm in the same region.

Earlier versions of the relief package, including the president’s request and the House measure, had included some money that could be spent elsewhere, chiefly in places impacted by other disasters. In almost every case, those were stripped out of the final measure passed by both houses and signed by Obama. If anything, there was less “pork” in the measure Cornyn, Cruz and their GOP colleagues voted against than in the originals.

That didn’t stop Republicans from slandering the final package to rationalize their nay votes. For example, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) cited such “non-Sandy expenses” as “sand dunes at the Kennedy Space Center, highway repairs in the Virgin Islands, and roof repairs in Washington, D.C.” (Ryan was not yet House speaker; his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, didn’t cast a vote, as is customary for the speaker.)

As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reports, however, these provisions included rehabilitation of the Florida shoreline where Sandy-related erosion endangered launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, and the repair of roof leaks at the Smithsonian Institution. Any appropriation for the Virgin Islands, which also lay in the path of the storm, appeared to have been removed before the final vote.

Another commonly criticized provision of $100 million for the Head Start preschool program, actually was for the repair and rehabilitation of 265 Head Start centers damaged by the storm.

Kessler conjectures that Cruz’s claim that two-thirds of the Sandy bill had “nothing to do” with the storm is a misspoken version of Cruz’s original 2013 complaint, which was that only about a third of the spending was for emergencies, with two-thirds to be doled out over the following 20 months or longer.

That’s a charitable view, since Cruz had plenty of time to get it right, and since it’s hardly unusual for disaster relief program to extend out over years. It’s perfectly plain that the restoration and rehabilitation of the Houston area will have to continue long after the immediate “emergency” is past — indeed, for many years. Will Cruz vote down a relief package for his home state unless all the money can be spent in the next six months? My guess is no.

As I reported earlier this week, Republican opposition to the Sandy relief bill stemmed from two sources. One was the elevation of the balanced budget into a fetish. The other was climate change denial: Virtually every lawmaker who voted against the package had also denied or expressed extreme skepticism about climate change.

The first source is certain to evaporate as the Texas congressional delegation lines up to secure billions in aid for its constituents, balanced budget or not. The second would yield to reality in a normal world, for the consequences of developing a metropolis and making policy as though climate change doesn’t exist are now on view for all to see if their eyes are open.

As for the “pork” these legislators are talking about, it was and is wholly synthetic. They shouldn’t be permitted to hide behind pigs of their own imagination.

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