Three GOP members of Louisiana's congressional delegation are being accused of hypocrisy for advocating a federal disaster declaration in their home state. But there's nothing to the charge when considering how they've approached other relief efforts in the past.
House majority whip Steve Scalise, Sen. Bill Cassidy, and Rep. John Fleming recently wrote to President Obama in support of their governor's request for assistance in response to devastating floods that the lawmakers predicted would "exceed the capability of state resources" to address. Their entreaty stirred the ire and ink of Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who cited their vote against $50 billion of Hurricane Sandy aid as evidence of their cant.
"No one is saying that the flood-stricken communities of Louisiana don't deserve all the assistance that the U.S. government can provide them. But so did the residents of the Sandy zone," Hiltzik wrote. "How do the lawmakers' 2013 votes to deny relief to those Northeast communities square with their demand for emergency flood assistance now?"
As a spokesman for Scalise answered, "apples and oranges." He's right. Taking the spokesman's cues, the columnist proceeded to detail the differences between the recovery demands in Louisiana to date and those in response to the super storm. Those differences negate, in total, the premise of Hiltzik's criticism.
Scalise, Cassidy, and Fleming added their pleas to the only one that matters, the one from Gov. John Bel Edwards, asking Obama to make federal funds that have already been appropriated available to Louisianans. Under the law, governors can petition the president to declare a major disaster in their state "for any natural event", including "high water" incidents, and the president can, in turn, grant the request. Doing so provides the affected state access to multiple programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster recovery fund. That fund is replenished through Congress's annual appropriations process, which resulted in a new allocation of $7 billion this fiscal year on top of $5.3 billion that carried over from the last one.
In 2013, there were no objections to New York's and other states' requests for a disaster declaration as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The opposition arose to legislation that included tens of billions of dollars that were not already appropriated to FEMA. Scalise, Cassidy, Fleming, and a significant majority of congressional Republicans were concerned that this extra money included too much fluff. Their attempts to offset the spending or reduce it, particularly $33 billion that were tacked onto the initial proposal of $17 billion, failed. They ultimately voted no.
Whether their protestations were valid is irrelevant to the current question. Scalise, Cassidy, and Fleming have not asked for eight figures of new funds for Louisiana. They requested permission for Louisiana to tap into federal dollars annually marked for disaster relief. This is not a distinction without a difference. It is a complete difference. And it is not hypocrisy.
But, Hiltzik continues, "the funds made available through the emergency declaration are likely to be a drop in the bucket compared to what ultimately will be needed in Louisiana."
How does that square with what FEMA has said?
"Congress has appropriated the necessary funding to address disasters for this fiscal year. FEMA has enough funding to address response and recovery support to Louisiana," an agency spokesman told Roll Call. At the beginning of August, the disaster relief fund had about $3.8 billion. The next fiscal year begins October 1, when the fund will be refilled.
President Obama considered the possibility Tuesday that the flood recovery will ultimately require action in Congress. Maybe so. If that time comes, and Scalise, Cassidy, and Fleming back emergency supplemental spending for their state, we can reopen the case on their alleged two-facedness. So far, they've done the routine job that many members of Congress have performed on behalf of their constituents, all without reprisal from judges in the press.