Disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy is one of the rare pieces of legislation that is both politically advantageous for its proponents and good public policy for its beneficiaries. Providing assistance to victims of a natural disaster and then making infrastructure investments to prevent the next hurricane from being so destructive should not be viewed as a liberal or conservative idea, but instead be thought of as good governance just like funding the FBI. This is how previous Congresses have always approached disaster relief – with the understanding that it is among the most useful and time-sensitive forms of government spending, and should therefore be exempt from the traditional political procedures governing appropriations.
In the current political climate however, even disaster relief is not free from gridlock, and the Sandy victim’s aid package has been delayed by Congressional recalcitrance. As the 113th Congress begins its term in office, the relief legislation is being held up by hardline Republicans who have attached amendments to the bill that would require the Senate to agree to billions of dollars in spending cuts to offset the Sandy relief money. These amendments stand no chance of passing the Senate, and their enactment will essentially doom the relief bill to failure. By standing between disaster victims and federal help, Republicans are giving credence to Democratic accusations that cannot be trusted with any sort of legislative authority.
Conservative opposition to the relief bill centers around the idea that government aid should only fund immediate relief, funds which will be spent in the next few months, rather than appropriate money for the rebuilding of infrastructure affected by Hurricane Sandy. This is not conservative thinking, but rather foolish thinking which views all government spending as equally pernicious, rather than understanding that in a few situations, disaster relief and infrastructure being one of them, government spending is required to solve American problems.
Hurricane Sandy has damaged roads and destroyed subways and repairing that damaged infrastructure is as much a part of disaster relief as immediately restoring power and building homes again. Spending less money to rebuild a neighborhood nobody wants to live in due to lack of transportation infrastructure is much more wasteful than spending more money to restore a neighborhood to vitality.
Fiscal conservatives should vote to fund disaster relief, long-term infrastructure spending and all, for the same reason they support funding the military and federal law enforcement – because safety is the first responsibility of any government, be it safety from terrorism or safety from natural disasters. House Republicans should not shirk that responsibility out of short-sighted fiscal conservatism.
The relief bill does contain some unrelated spending, such as $2 million dollars for repairs to the Smithsonian, but laws cannot be judged against an abstract standard of perfection. Instead, legislation must be judged against the simple criteria of whether it is something government should be doing and then whether most, as opposed to all, of the spending is being used for the correct purposes.
Hurricane Sandy relief meets this criteria, and with 64% of Americans supporting federal disaster relief, conservative hardliners oppose the bill at their own risk.