Column: How Hurricane Matthew will make fools out of lawmakers who voted against Sandy aid

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): One of the few voices of (near) sanity on climate change among Republican lawmakers from the coastal Southeast.
(Associated Press)

In August, when severe flooding brought disaster to Louisiana, we observed that the event demonstrated the folly of Louisiana senators and congressmen who had voted against aid to the victims of Superstorm Sandy in 2013. Now they were in the position of explaining why the residents of New Jersey and New York didn’t deserve federal help, but their constituents did.

Hurricane Matthew, which has largely completed its destructive tour of coastal Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, has vastly expanded the ranks of federal politicians facing a hypocritical moment of truth.

Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes....Who are you going to come to when you have these things?

Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., to GOP colleagues who voted against Sandy aid in 2013

Of the congressmen currently representing the most seriously affected coastal zones of Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, 10 were in office on Jan. 15, 2013, when the $50.5-billion relief package for victims of Sandy came to the floor, and passed. Five, all Republicans, voted against the package — including one representative of Jacksonville, Fla., and one from St. Augustine, Fla., communities that suffered extensive damage from Matthew. Two Republicans didn’t cast a vote. Three, all Democrats, voted in favor.


As Henry Grabar of Slate observed, the Florida Republicans voting against the Sandy bill included Bill Posey, whose district stretches from Vero Beach to north of Cape Canaveral, and Ron DeSantis, who represents Daytona Beach and St. Augustine. DeSantis even voted against a smaller, less contentious Sandy bill that eventually was folded into the full measure.

On the Senate side, where the Sandy bill passed on Jan. 28, 2013, six current senators from those four states were present and voting. Five, all Republicans, voted it down. The roster includes Florida’s Marco Rubio, who was last heard from urging President Obama to approve Gov. Rick Scott’s request for an emergency declaration on Thursday — even before Matthew arrived. (Obama did so.)

The entire hurricane-hit region will benefit from emergency spending by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. But it’s almost certain that residents of the coastal zone will also need supplemental assistance to rebuild their homes and businesses in the wake of the storm, and that local governments will need help restoring destroyed infrastructure. That’s the kind of aid these politicians rejected when the Sandy bill came up for votes. Preliminary estimates by insurance authorities place the damage from Matthew at $6 billion, but that’s likely to be conservative.

The point isn’t merely that logrolling is an important element of legislating, though it is. Experienced senators and representatives have had that burned into their neurons, and history underscores the truth of it.

After the Mississippi River burst its banks and displaced more than 600,000 residents of the Delta in 1927, a congressional delegation toured the devastated region — led by Rep. Phil Swing of California. Why him? Because he was pushing for a flood control project for his home district, the Imperial Valley, in return for sponsoring a Delta restoration bill, which got passed in 1928. That same year, Congress obliged Swing by approving his project, which we know of today as Hoover Dam. It should go without saying that the residents of both regions, and indeed the entire nation, benefited greatly from those bills — a classic win-win.

It’s also important to observe that two ideologies drove the Republican hostility to Sandy aid. One was the elevation of the balanced budget to an article of faith. Lawmakers who opposed the Sandy bill have claimed ever since that they did so because the appropriation wasn’t counterbalanced by spending cutbacks elsewhere in the budget, though they were seldom specific about where.

Some Republicans warned their recalcitrant colleagues that they were being dangerously shortsighted. “Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, (R-N.J.), called to GOP holdouts. “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?”

These are good questions, and they won’t be answered until a relief bill for Matthew comes to the floor, as it almost inevitably will.

The other ideology is climate change denial. Virtually every lawmaker who voted against the Sandy aid has also denied or expressed extreme skepticism about this well-established phenomenon, even though it’s likely to have magnified the impact of harsh weather on their own low-lying districts. 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. Sea level increases also will intensify the impact of storm surges such as those that struck the coast.

Yet the coastal delegation continues to turn a blind eye to the phenomenon in front of them. The only member who has shown even a modicum of good sense on climate change is Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), though he remains resistant to solutions that may cost money.

I’ve talked to the climatologists of the world, and 90% of them are telling me that the greenhouse gas effect is real,” he said during a GOP presidential candidates debate last year. “I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.” He then had to fend off criticism that his position made him sound like a Democrat.

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