Letter from DC: The Politicizing of Hurricane Irene

FEMA Funding Next Battle Over "Spending"

By , Columnist

Many on the East Coast dodged the brunt of Hurricane Irene. In Washington D.C., the worst of it was about 50 downed trees and a leaky Washington Monument left semi-vulnerable from the cracks caused by last week’s earthquake.

“Ooooh, I just saw a leaf blow off a branch,” tweeted one DC denizen. “The National Weather Service just downgraded my hurricane party,” e-mailed another. “It’s now just a tropical storm get-together.” 

Perhaps the DC-centric impression of the storm that devastated eastern New Jersey, upstate New York and much of northern New England offers an explanation to why the U.S. House’s Republican leadership wants to hold the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) budget hostage to its spending cuts mantra.

Still reeling from the costs associated with Hurricane Katrina six years ago and the tornado that destroyed the city of Joplin, MO earlier this year, FEMA is running out of cash.  Already the federal agency was hurrican irene.jpgforced to suspend rebuilding payments to Joplin and redirect funds to address immediate needs caused by the damage of Hurricane Irene. 

Standard operating procedure is that Congress replenishes FEMA’s coffers every year to react to whatever Mother Nature throws the country’s way. Disaster relief, after all, is non-partisan and a universally-supported function of the federal government; even by libertarians. Of the $130 billion in disaster relief appropriated by Congress since 1990, $110 billion of it came in reactive supplemental funding.

Not any more if House Majority Leader Eric "Little Lord Cantorkerous of Henrico County"Cantor-Fox News.jpg Cantor (R-VA) has his way.  “Yes we’re going to find the money,” he assured Fox News on Monday.  “We’re just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so.” 

Uh-oh.  That shot-across-the-bow puts vital disaster relief smack dab in the middle of the budget wars over the debt ceiling and spending, a battle that resulted in the downgrading of the country’s credit rating, not to mention the federal government’s image.

Those folks in Vermont isolated by the storm’s damage might have to get used to having food and water air-dropped by National Guard helicopters. Then again, not that House Republicans would care. 

hurricane irene damage vermont.jpgOne of Vermont’s U.S. Senators is an admitted Socialist for God’s Sake; and the other grooves to Grateful Dead bootlegs and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You’ve got a better chance of running into a brown bear than a Republican in the Green Mountain State (except during ski season). 

The cynics in Washington see the continuation of a slash-and-burn strategy by Republicans in support of its avowed priority: to make President Obama a “one-term president.” The intent, the cynics surmise, is for Republicans to make things in the country as miserable as possible leading to the 2012 elections, and then point the finger at Obama while denying any culpability of their own.  

Debt ceiling fiasco: Obama’s fault. Economic repercussions from debt ceiling fiasco, Obama’s fault. The fact that Congress has been unable pass appropriations for FEMA? Obama’s fault, accused Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), who just so happens to be the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose job is to appropriate money to FEMA. 

In this case, the intent is to make Hurricane Irene Obama’s Hurricane Katrina. 

Yet, Little Lord Cantorkerous may have stepped in it a bit too deep, drawing the ire of Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), who developed a well-earned reputation in the House as a bone-breaker while serving as Minority Whip. He would have had Cantorkerous as a tasty snack. 

roy blunt.jpg“Recovery from hurricane damages on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri’s rebuilding efforts,” he said a released statement. “If FEMA can’t fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that’s unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented.”

It’s unclear, however, if Blunt can unleash his fury from the North side of the Capitol complex. 

Meanwhile, Washington proper is breathing a sigh of relief, thankful that it avoided the devastation seen in the Delmarva Peninsula, Pennsylvania, Jersey, upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. By the grace of about 40 miles, goes D.C.

Another key locale largely spared from Irene’s fury?  Richmond, VA, which just so happens to be surrounded by the Congressional district of Little Lord Cantorkerous….

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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