Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.
Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.
Earmarks had been banned by the House but under the cover of sympathy for Sandy, they have made a remarkable comeback. Here are just a few of the outrageous items that somehow were slipped into the $60.4 billion relief package:
* $150 million for Alaskan fisheries
* $41 million for military facilities such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
* $8 million to buy cars for the Justice and Homeland Security departments
* $3.1 million for an animal disease center
* $2 million for repair of the roofs of the Smithsonian Institution museums
* $58 million for reforestation on private land
* $100 million for Head Start day care centers
* $17 billion for Community Development Block grants that act as slush funds for members of Congress
While much of the money in the bill is intended for and will go to genuine victims of Sandy, these items demonstrate that a great deal of the funds allocated here will not do so. That’s why the mockery of the calls for accountability by congressional critics of the bill is mere partisan flummery. The fact that such practices are traditional is no defense of their continuation.
The willingness of the mainstream media to jump on Boehner for slowing down the rush to pass this pork-laden bill gives the lie to all of the lip service being paid to the idea of reducing spending and ending the corruption endemic to the earmark process. Though relief for Sandy’s victims can and should be passed, natural disasters should not be used as a flimsy cover for corrupt earmarks and patronage schemes.