Disaster Aid Shouldn't Be a Partisan Debate

Victims of natural disasters can't afford to wait on Congress.

People gather items in St. Charles County, Mo., where at least two tornados were part of the Friday, May 31, 2013, storm that raked portions of St. Louis, Mo., according to the National Weather Service.(Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP Photo)
By SHARE

America is in the midst of a calamitous season. The recent eruption of unprecedented deadly tornadoes has reignited the debate over whether Congress should find budget cuts before appropriating funding for disaster response and recovery. As a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, I understood all too well the despair my colleagues – Republican and Democrat alike – were feeling as Hurricane Sandy ravaged their communities. More recently, as tornadoes tore through Oklahoma, we were reminded that natural disasters don't just strike our coastal areas, but that every state is susceptible.

As a representative of a state constantly battling and recovering from natural disasters, I understand that when your neighbors' lives rely on federal disaster aid, partisanship becomes intolerable, and speed is your only friend. Debating unrelated budget cuts before aid can flow is a luxury Americans simply can't afford and should not tolerate.

I was embarrassed as residents in the Northeast waited last fall for disaster funding. As we've seen over the last two and a half years, even on its best day, Congress still has trouble compromising on cuts to the federal budget. Why should we force budget cuts upon ourselves at the very time the country should be focused on response and recovery?

What if, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast residents had to wait on Democrats and Republicans to agree on cuts before receiving clean water or loans to rebuild? We could have been in limbo for months! The delay in funding for Sandy victims confirms that congressional negotiations often come slowly or not at all. To leave disaster victims to languish is morally reprehensible and un-American.

[Read Rep. Marlin Stutzman: Don't Put Bureaucrats Ahead of Disaster Victims]

Throwing disaster aid into ongoing partisan debates over federal spending is unjust and undignified. It forces representatives to argue why their areas are worthy for disaster aid while at the same time taking funding from other programs. No state, region, community or politician should be forced to fight such an uphill battle.

All over the country, natural disasters are compelling Democrats and Republicans alike to remove partisan lines and prioritize the immediate needs of their communities. As natural disasters become more frequent, it is essential that we work together to ensure that our communities are better prepared and that resources that support a robust recovery are available.

My colleagues and I were elected to Congress to be the voice of the people and to advocate on their behalf. The next time a natural disaster strikes we must remember that we are only here because they wanted us to represent them and believed we could impact change. If my district or my colleague's district has to weather the next storm, I want to know that we are in this together. We simply can't afford to stay huddled in our respective parties, while communities are struggling and in need of our support.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

No American should ever be left to wonder if the federal government will provide the necessary resources in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. We are only as strong as our capacity to look beyond our differences and to come together for the sake of those we represent.

I welcome a discussion on a long-term, proactive approach to emergency disaster relief for Americans. Until Congress arrives at a conclusion, however, we must continue to honor this country's tradition of coming to the aid of fellow citizens in their darkest hours of need.

Rep. Cedric Richmond is a Democrat from Louisiana.