The 7-Step Guide to Our Idiotic Disaster-Relief Politics


"We've got your back." ||| Whitehouse.gov

By now you should recognize the formula:

1) Natural disaster (tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, fire, snowstorm, heavy rainstorm, volcano) kills multiple people.

2) President (Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Bush I) vows to survivors that the federal government will "be with you every step of the way" in the rebuilding process.

3) One or two fiscal conservatives (Sen. Tom Coburn [R-Oklahoma], Rep. Eric Cantor [R-Virginia], Sen. Rand Paul [R-Kentucky]) will suggest that a federal blank check isn't the best way to respond to local disasters; point out that annual federal emergency-declarations have grown exponentially from 28 during the Reagan presidency to 44 under Bush I to 90 under Clinton to 130 under Bush II and 153 under Obama; complain that disaster bills get laden with unseemly pork; observe that disaster relief inevitably transfers money from low-risk states (like Michigan) to high-risk states (like Florida), and as a result of all this propose spending cuts to offset the cost of the federal bailout.

4) They will be treated as hideous idelogues by both the press and office-holding Republicans in the affected area.

5) The blank check will arive.

6) After a respectful interval, rebuilding locals will complain that the federal money comes with bureaucratic strings and a general outsidery cluelessness.

7) Natural disaster kills multiple people….

A critical element in this dreary and sometimes deadly farce is the attempt by free-spending pragmatists to assert that the only "ideology" on display here is that of people who dispute the virtue of the blank check. Here's the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, for example:

"All of us are in this for the long haul." ||| Government Printing Office
Government Printing Office

Although we resolved the slavery debate, our nation seems in many ways to be regressing back to the politics of that era. Disaster relief is not a slam dunk anymore because an issue of basic decency has become entangled with a renewed assault on federal power and a belief that cutting the budget is the nation's single highest priority.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) is so philosophically consistent that his office let it be known that he believed even assistance to those suffering in his home state should be offset by budget cuts. He later said he would not get in the way of relief, but it's astonishing that emergency spending on behalf of innocent people would be used as a vehicle for more austerity. […]

May the people of Oklahoma get the help they need. Rigid ideology is no substitute for generosity of spirit.

Related reading from me: "The Simpletons: David Brooks, Thomas L. Friedman, and the banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry," and "No Labels, and the Ideology of Non-Ideology." And to quickly fact-check E.J. Dionne's claim that "disaster relief is not a slam dunk anymore," check out the Federal Emergency Management Agency's last 60 disaster declarations.

Reason has a robust archive on disaster-response public policy; click here to get started.