By Walter Shapiro
Ronald Reagan began a 1986 press conference by trotting out one of his favorite lines: “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
That sentiment succinctly summarizes the conservative philosophy that has governed the Republican Party since the 1980s — all federal spending is suspect unless it goes to the Pentagon. And it helps explain why in early 2013 virtually every Republican in the Texas congressional delegation voted against the $51-billion emergency aid package after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey.
Newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz justified his vote at the time by hyperbolically claiming, “Cynical politicians in Washington could not resist loading up this relief bill with billions in new spending utterly unrelated to Sandy.” And Mick Mulvaney, then a second-term House member, championed an unsuccessful drive to fund all Hurricane Sandy aid with sharp cuts to other domestic programs.
But none of these largely bogus objections explain why the GOP-controlled House treated the Hurricane Sandy appropriations with all the enthusiasm normally reserved for a foreign-aid bill. (A possible explanation: Maybe the bulk of House Republicans regarded New York and New Jersey as foreign soil).
House Speaker John Boehner adjourned the House for the 2012 Christmas recess without voting on the Senate-passed Sandy funding. As a result of the House’s lassitude, Congress only approved the full funding three months after Hurricane Sandy first struck the Jersey Shore.
This week, in flood-drenched Houston and other hurricane-walloped parts of Texas, I suspect that storm victims are grateful for government help whether it is from FEMA, the Texas National Guard or local officials. And when Congress soon begins working on the Hurricane Harvey aid package, it is a safe bet that few Texas Republicans will be wailing that it is larded with unnecessary extravagances.
At times like this, most Republicans belatedly recognize that only the federal government has the resources to help Texas rebuild and to compensate those who lost their homes, their cars, their possessions and their businesses through no fault of their own.
Perhaps Vice President Mike Pence has learned something since he impetuously declared in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, “We simply can’t allow a catastrophe of nature to become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren.” Now Pence said Monday on behalf of the Trump administration, “We’re very confident that the Congress of the United States is going to be there to provide the resources necessary.”
Emergencies are not a time to make a fetish out of green-eyeshade budget arithmetic. It is a truth that Republicans failed to recognize after Barack Obama embarked on an unprecedented spending spree in early 2009 to stabilize the economy after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And it is a lesson embedded in the tardy and stingy congressional response to Hurricane Sandy.
Maybe this will become a moment for Congress to step away from the self-destructive budget brinksmanship that has been the norm since Newt Gingrich first shut down the government in 1995.
No one in their right mind wants to see FEMA’s cleanup efforts halted by Congress failure to keep the government operating or by Donald Trump’s petulant veto of a spending bill that does not include his fanciful solar-powered border fence. In similar fashion, the debt-ceiling fight takes on a different complexion when borrowing under the federal Disaster Relief Fund is also affected.
At the same time, Mick Mulvaney, now the OMB director, should feel a tinge of embarrassment over his 2018 budget proposal that called for an 11 percent cut in the FEMA budget. Is it still the official position of the Trump administration that wasteful spending on boondoggles like FEMA should be trimmed to pay for the Pentagon budget?
As a New Yorker, I still find that my emotions well up as I recall those sad-eyed moments of national unity after the Twin Towers toppled on Sept. 11. There was a resolve that never again would we as Americans let petty differences obscure larger truths about who we are as a people.
That moment, of course, passed.
And we are now at a juncture in our history when even the vehement disagreements over the Iraq War seem nostalgic compared to the ugliness of today’s politics.
It is too much to hope that President Trump will be transformed by the realities of the devastation as he tours Texas on Tuesday. The sheer act of Trump rushing to the site of the hurricane — while urgent relief efforts are still under way — is a reminder that for our first reality-show president, it is always about him.
But maybe the rest of us can learn something from Houston.
The calamity should remind us that all Americans who are suffering deserve our compassion, regardless of political party, race, religion, language or national origin. For symbolically, in the midst of a hurricane, the same torrents of rain fall on us as Americans whether we live in New York or Texas.
Walter Shapiro is a columnist for CQ-Roll Call.