Disaster Aid Deja vu

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn wants spending cuts before aid is sent to tornado victims in his own state.

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Alli Christian returns Jessica Wilkinson's dog Bella to her after finding her among the wreckage after a tornado struck in Norman, Okla., on May 19, 2013.

A massive tornado ripped through Moore, Okla. and surrounding cities yesterday, leaving scores of Americans dead. Photos from the scene show complete and total devastation, nothing but dirt and timber where once whole neighborhoods stood.

[See photos from the aftermath of the tornadoes.]

Federal resources, of course, have been mobilized to aid those affected by the disaster, but Congress will likely look to send additional funds. And in an altogether too familiar scene, a Republican lawmaker has already come forward and said that any disaster aid provided to Oklahoma should be offset with budget cuts elsewhere. Adding insult to injury, the lawmaker in question is Oklahoma’s own Sen. Tom Coburn, as the Huffington Post reported:

Coburn spokesman John Hart on Monday evening confirmed that the senator will seek to ensure that any additional funding for tornado disaster relief in Oklahoma be offset by cuts to federal spending elsewhere in the budget. "That's always been his position [to offset disaster aid]," Hart said. "He supported offsets to the bill funding the OKC bombing recovery effort." Those offsets were achieved in 1995 by tapping federal funds that had not yet been appropriated.  […]

Hart said Coburn had "never made parochial calculations" about Oklahoma's disproportionate share of disaster funds, "as his voting record and campaign against earmarks demonstrates." Hart added that Coburn, "makes no apologies for voting against disaster aid bills that are often poorly conceived and used to finance priorities that have little to do with disasters."

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

As many have noted, Coburn is at least consistent on this front, applying to his own constituents the standard he espoused when disasters hit other locales. But his extreme position has become the norm for a Republican party that has let its obsession with budget cuts cloud any notion of compassion for victims of a disaster.

Remember, Republicans sought to offset aid to the victims of the Joplin tornado. They pulled the same trick after the 2011 earthquake that hit Virginia, with Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor leading the charge. Ditto for Hurricane Irene.

It took three months for Congress to approve an aid package after Hurricane Sandy, and a slew of Republicans voted against the bill, earning them the ire of conservative darling Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. The Federal Emergency Management Agency nearly ran out of money in 2011 due to Republican intransigence.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

There is no economic rationale for this position; the federal government is the only entity capable of mobilizing resources on the scale necessary to deal with the aftermath of a natural disaster. As I’ve pointed out on this blog, the deficit has plummeted recently (indeed, it is coming down too fast), and as Politico’s Ben White noted, disaster aid has little effect on the nation’s long-term fiscal position, making the opposition to disaster funding doubly ridiculous.

Opposing aid for disaster victims is knee-jerk ideology at its worst, the absurd end point of conservative derision towards anything that smells like government spending. It’s a sad commentary on where Congress is at the moment that a knock-down, drag out debate is becoming necessary for everything, including whether or not to help Americans who just lost literally everything.

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