Rand Paul Isn't a Hypocrite on Disaster Relief

The senator's opposition to past disaster relief bills has always been on the grounds that congressional budgets should mean something.


Destructive tornados have swept through five states in the South and Midwest, leaving 88 people dead and many more without homes or power. Most of the damage has been concentrated in Kentucky where at least 74 people have died. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear warns that the death toll could rise higher still.

The ongoing pain and suffering in the state have focused the minds of more than a few liberal lawmakers and columnists on the alleged hypocrisy of its junior senator, Rand Paul (R–Ky.), for asking that President Joe Biden provide federal disaster aid to the state.

In doing so, these critics are almost entirely ignoring what Paul has asked for in response to this latest disaster and what his criticisms of past disaster relief bills have been. The result is some inaccurate cheap shots that skate over the serious problems of federal overinvolvement in natural catastrophe response.

Over the weekend, Paul sent a letter to Biden endorsing a request from Beshear that the president declare a major disaster in the state and start sending personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to start assessing and responding to the damage done.

Paul also signed onto a Sunday letter sent by the Kentucky congressional delegation asking Biden for federal individual disaster assistance, which pays for things like temporary housing and repairs to damaged uninsured private property.

Biden acquiesced to both requests, declaring a major disaster in Kentucky on Sunday and opening individual assistance to residents of eight counties in the state hardest hit by the tornado.

Reps. Eric Swalwell (D–Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) were quick to pounce on these requests to criticize Paul's insufficient past support of various past relief measures. Omar goes so far as to quote Paul's 2017 statement—when a $35 billion relief bill for Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico was being debated—that it was easy to be "compassionate with someone else's money."

Media commentators were just as critical.

"As you might have noticed, Paul's request for federal assistance from Biden over the weekend did not come with a stipulation that any federal dollars allocated to the state would have to come from an equal offset in another part of the federal budget," wrote CNN's Chris Cillizza on Monday. "When it happens to YOUR state, those same principles go out the window."

Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik was even more scathing in his own article attacking Paul, writing that "one almost feels guilty pointing out the hypocrisy of people like Paul, because it's just so easy."

In addition to the disaster relief funding bills Cillizza mentions, Hiltzik cites Paul's opposition to both the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in March 2020 and another bill that enabled the 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund to accept an unlimited number of claims through the end of 2090.

Hiltzik should feel a little less guilty about attacking Paul given how off-base his criticisms of hypocrisy are. Neither the CARES Act nor the 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund renewal are similar in kind to the federal assistance he's now requesting on behalf of storm-ravaged Kentuckians.

The former represented a massive fiscal response to the pandemic that included everything from individual economic relief payments to the effective nationalization of commercial airlines. One can be consistent in opposing those things while still supporting federal relief in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

(It also doesn't really fit with Hiltzik's accusation that Paul is only concerned about securing money for people in his state given that CARES Act funds went to Kentucky as well.)

Similarly, the 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund renewal that passed in 2019 allows the fund to accept compensation claims through 2090 and authorizes it to pay out to beneficiaries without Congress actually appropriating money to cover those claims.

Paul's objections to the fund's extension were that there was no money budgeted for it and that the Senate was trying to pass it without any actual debate.

One might think that criticism of Paul's opposition to past disaster relief bills—which were also echoed at ABC News, Salon, and elsewhere—are more on point. They're not.

The two major examples cited to prove Paul's hypocrisy involve his opposition to supplemental appropriation bills in to provide aid in the wake of 2012's Hurricane Sandy and the hurricanes and wildfires that occurred in 2017.

It's important to understand that the bills Paul was opposing were supplemental disaster appropriation bills that spent money well above the funds that Congress had already provided for disaster relief.

In both cases, Paul proposed amending these bills so that they offset these supplemental appropriations—which ended up being $51 billion for Hurricane Sandy and a whopping $136 billion for 2017's disasters—with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Paul's position in both cases is entirely sensible and basically boils down to the idea that if Congress establishes how much it's going to spend in a year, that should actually mean something. Critics seem to believe that congressional budgets should in fact be a fiction that are enlarged whenever a new spending item pops up.

The federal aid that Paul has endorsed thus far for disasters in Kentucky will come from the federal government's Disaster Relief Fund, which as of early December had $45 billion in it. It's projected to close out fiscal year 2022 with $10 billion in reserves.

As of yet, no one has proposed additional unbudgeted disaster spending to respond to the tornados that hit Kentucky and other states. If they do, and Paul supports it without demanding offsetting spending cuts, that would be hypocritical.

So, thus far, everything he's asked for is already paid for.

To be clear, this doesn't make Paul a perfect libertarian on federal disaster assistance; the disaster response and relief system we have set up right now creates far too large of a role for the federal government. It's created a system of dependence in which state and local officials' first response is to turn to Washington for help when it should be them (as well as private parties) in the driver's seat. The individual assistance that Paul has requested and Biden has approved also arguably creates a moral hazard by paying to cover damages that people haven't insured themselves against.

We could have a substantive conversation about federal disaster relief and the preserve incentives it creates, but we probably won't since legislators and pundits are concerned primarily with incorrect, cheap-shot accusations of hypocrisy.