Commentary Magazine


No Hypocrisy in Opposing Disaster Pork

Some Northeastern politicians are having a quiet chortle even while joining with the rest of the nation in mourning the tragic losses from the Oklahoma tornado disaster. A few months ago Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York’s Representative Peter King were pitching a fit over the refusal of Southern and Western members of the GOP to push through a Hurricane Sandy disaster aid bill because critics said it was filled with extraneous items that amounted to nothing more than political pork. Christie made headlines for tearing into House Speaker John Boehner for the holdup. Later, King claimed GOP presidential candidates who raised campaign money in New York after voting against the Sandy bill weren’t welcome in the Empire State.

That’s why today King is claiming the high ground in his feud with his former antagonists and saying, as Politico reports, that he won’t get even by trying to stop any bill intended to help the people of Oklahoma:

“I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy involved here, [Sen. James] Inhofe saying Sandy aid was corrupt but Oklahoma won’t be,” King (R-N.Y.) told POLITICO. “But I don’t want to hold the people of Oklahoma responsible for what elected officials are saying, for the husband and wife without a home, for the people who lost all their worldly possessions.”

King, who stressed that he wasn’t looking for a fight, emphasized that aid should be provided to Oklahoma — which sustained a deadly tornado on Monday — without the requirement of budgetary offsets.

“I’ve always believed that but certainly, going through it myself [during Sandy], seeing the devastation a national disaster brings to a district…it’s a [national issue], not a local issue, like Sandy wasn’t a New York, New Jersey issue,” he said. “It’s an American issue, we have an obligation to come forward.”

That’s big of King, but it doesn’t change the fact that the original objections to the Sandy bill were largely correct.

Residents of the Northeast who suffered from Sandy should be forgiven for wishing that congressional reformers had decided to wait until they got what they needed before trying to fix the system. But the process by which Congress creates disaster relief bills is one of the last vestiges of a corrupt earmark system that ought to be consigned to Washington’s dark past.

The Sandy bill, like many of its predecessors, was stuffed with measures that had little to do with the actual needs of embattled shore dwellers—many of whom have still not recovered from the impact of the superstorm. It became a convenient tool by which members of Congress found a way to fund personal projects and crowd-pleasers for their districts. Efforts by GOP conservatives to clean up the bill forced some changes for the better before the Sandy measure was eventually passed. But that fact was lost amid the general hullabaloo about the insensitivity of members of Congress whose districts were not hit by the storm having the gall to demand it not be the usual laundry list of raids on the Treasury.

Christie and King—both of whom count themselves as opponents of this kind of congressional business as usual when their constituencies are not affected—bolstered their support at home by grandstanding about the Sandy bill. So King’s milking the issue for a little more press attention is understandable.

But the same principles that led some conservatives to raise questions about the Sandy bill should apply just as readily to anything Congress does for Oklahoma or any other place that has dealt with a natural disaster. Fiscal hawks like Oklahoma Senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe say they will work to ensure that a tornado relief effort won’t repeat the mistakes of the past in Congress. But if they don’t succeed, then King and anyone else who isn’t napping should keep them honest.

The debate about Sandy relief was demagogued by Christie and King in such a manner as to make concerns about pork seem small-minded and cruel. But it is precisely because Americans are filled with emotion about terrible tragedies, such as the one that unfolded this week in Oklahoma, that our leaders must not allow themselves to be silenced when faced with congressional misdeeds. 

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