Paying for disaster relief

Rep. Eric Cantor is taking a bit of heat for saying that any federal monies spent on disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Irene should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

but consider the quotes in Anita’s piece, both from Rep. cantor and from the group criticizing him, Virginia Organizing. First up, the hard-nosed Mr. Cantor:

“The federal government does have a role in situations like this. When there’s a disaster there’s an appropriate federal role and we will find the monies,” Cantor said. “But we’ve had discussions about these things before and those monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government’s role in a situation like this.”

Which earned this retort from Virginia Organizing:

“We have truly reached a new low in American politics if Rep. Cantor is willing to use disaster relief as a political bargaining chip,’’ said Jay Johnson, a board member of Virginia Organizing. “Disaster relief is a necessary function of government and not something to be bartered with. …We are the richest nation in the world and should be able to respond to disasters with more dignity than someone bartering for a couch on Craigslist.”

Each side plays to type, but at bottom, both assume that the federal government has a role in disaster relief.

But does it?

For the truly hard-nosed, the answer is “no.” The federal government is no more responsible for paying for clean-up than it is for offering grants to cowboy poets. But so feeble has our notion of what is and is not the federal government’s proper sphere, that we assume — left, right and center — that our impoverished Uncle on the Potomac will arrive on the scene with cash, supplies and perhaps even a few second hand, formaldehyde-tainted trailers.

Once upon a time in America, the idea of the federal government providing any disaster assistance at all was highly suspect. Jack Balkin, writing after the Katrina disaster in 2005, unearthed a gem from President Grover Cleveland, who vetoed a bill allowing the Department of Agriculture to distribute free seeds to drought-stricken areas of Texas. In his veto message, Cleveland wrote:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service [as with veterans, for example] or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of [national] power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.

Cleveland’s reading of the Constitution is no longer in fashion (if it ever really was). As the Cantor quote above shows, even today’s most rock-ribbed conservatives are comfortable with an expansive reading of federal power. So…how can we possibly bridge the divide between cantor’s desire to offset federal disaster relief spending with Virginia Organizing’s belief that any offsets are evil?

Aside from ditching the grants to cowboy poets, which wouldn’t do much, Sen. Tom Coburn’s ongoing series of pork reports offer millions of dollars of savings that could be funneled to disaster relief…if that’s where the worthies decide the money is better spent (rather than, say, on the feds’ buying additional limousines).

Coburn has found and continues to find so much frivolous federal spending that reaching Mr. Cantor’s offset goal is neither as difficult, nefarious or Craiglist-like as Virginia Organizing believes it to be.

Unless they really like the idea of having more federal limousines scurrying around the countryside…

  • JZ

    As someone who does occasionally barter via Craigslist, I am offended that Virginia Organizing compared me to the Federal Government. If they bought and sold via Craigslist it would surely free up some money.

  • William Bailey

    So we cut one aircraft carrier from the budget. What is the big deal?

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