Tom Coburn and Republican Senators Repeatedly Opposed Disaster Relief Funds


Update: Since this article was written, Senator Coburn announced that he would be insistent that any aid to the Oklahoma tornado victims must be offset by additional spending cuts elsewhere — predictably putting partisan politics ahead of helping his constituents. Read more here.

It's always immensely satisfying to read an article that makes its point simply by listing facts.

The piece that inspired this observation appeared in the Huffington Post. As reporter Christina Wilkie observed, the recent string of tornadoes which have devastated Oklahoma are putting that state's pair of Republican senators in a rather "awkward position." Not only did Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe support a conservative plan last year to cut Hurricane Sandy disaster relief from $60.4 billion to $23.8 billion, but they even opposed additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when it was set to run out of funds back in 2011. Of course, despite a claim by one of Coburn's spokesmen that that his boss never makes "parochial calculations" in his voting decisions, the erstwhile physician is on the record urging FEMA to act as quickly as possible after a 2007 ice storm so that "Oklahoma has the resources needed to begin the clean-up." When the Department of Housing and Urban Development came through with additional relief funds the following year, Inhofe joined Coburn in offering effusive praise.

Image Credit: Talk Radio News Service

Given that Oklahoma needed (and received) $67.8 million in federal relief after its last comparable tornado disaster in 1999, it's a fair bet that the amount required to achieve meaningful results will again land in at least the high eight figure range this time around. If Coburn and Inhofe decide against pushing for adequate funds, they will fail to uphold their most basic duties as representatives of the best interest and welfare of the people of Oklahoma. Then again, if they request anything close to what would actually be necessary to repair their state, they can bank on the same right-wingers with whom they normally align to either ...

A) Root around their relief bill and cry foul against "wasteful spending" (both the real and imagined kind) as a way of impressing their party base or ...

B) Suspend their ideology so they can help their fellow partisans.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

As I mull over the unflattering predicament currently faced by Coburn, Inhofe, and the people who voted for them, I can't help but think of the political ideals propounded by the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, back when he was an obscure ex-congressman and his future party was less than two weeks old. "The legitimate object of government," Lincoln wrote, "is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves." Although he naturally believed that when the people could "individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere," he listed the state's responsibility as including the response to "all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanages, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself." Because government exists so that the people of a polity can "effect certain objects by joint effort," inevitably "the best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive."

Of course, we live in the era of haughty zealotry, in which the ability to cleave to abstract concepts in the midst of concrete suffering is too often praised as principled ... except, of course, when the suffering hits too close to home. As much as outspokenly thrifty politicians are admired for their so-called courage, the truth is that it's always easy to oppose programs that help others; all that's required is an incentive (the votes of right-wing ideologues) and a handful of overboiled platitudes (usually on small government, various reifications of freedom, and the erroneous belief that our founding fathers were economic conservatives). When a program impacts one's self directly, however, the same people who allowed ideology to interfere with other people's welfare are suddenly forced to either reveal the fundamental inhumane callousness of their philosophy to their constituents or (given the understandable reluctance to do that) expose their own hypocrisy by making an exception for themselves to rules they all too cruelly apply to others. Either way, the main losers in the end are the people who, though afflicted with problems they can not fix on their own, are left with inadequate governmental assistance when it comes time to address them.

Since the problem addressed here has existed since the very first tremors of progressivism made their way to America, there is no sound reason to think it will go away in the near future. As such, perhaps the best way to end this piece is with the wise observation of another great Republican, California governor, vice presidential candidate, and Supreme Court judge Earl Warren:

"Many people consider the things government does for them to be social progress but they regard the things government does for others as socialism."