The ethos of Ebenezer Scrooge is now infecting federal disaster relief.
It was inevitable that this bipartisan practice -- helping storm-tossed Americans, regardless of the cost -- would become politicized. After all, if "tea party" Republicans would hold the debt ceiling hostage, in exchange for a heavy ransom of spending cuts, then naturally we would expect them to insist that Hurricane Irene relief be fully financed only if the money is swiped from other programs.
Eric Cantor, GOP No. 2 in the House, summed up the ethos Monday on Fox News: "We will find the (Irene) money if there is a need for additional money. But those moneys are not unlimited, and we have said we have to offset that which has already been funded."
Translated into plain English, he's saying that the Republicans will no longer honor the bipartisan tradition of providing no-strings-attached disaster aid. Both congressional parties have done it that way 33 times since 1989, without requiring any budgetary "offsets," but apparently Cantor sees the current emergency as an opportune time to play ideological politics.
Since FEMA, the federal emergency agency, will probably need more money for Irene's victims, the plot of the next congressional melodrama seems clear already. Republicans will insist that some programs be cut to pay for the aid, Democrats will fume about this departure of tradition, and President Barack Obama ... well, who knows whether he'll say or do anything.
But I have questions for the Republican austerity cops. If they're so committed to the principle of "pay as you go," if they believe so fervently that fiscal conservatism should trump even the promotion of the "general welfare" (U.S. Constitution, Article I Section 8), then where were they just a few years ago, when the Bush administration launched two wars and successfully pushed a Medicare prescription plan -- none of which was paid for?
In particular, why were Republicans so willing to ratify the invasion of Iraq without insisting that the high cost be "offset" by slashing other programs? Cantor never uttered a peep. How come it was OK in 2003 to indulge that neoconservative dream regardless of cost (the Iraq tab approaches $1 trillion), but it's not OK in 2011 to help Americans recover from a natural disaster regardless of cost?
Gee, I wonder. Perhaps it has something do with who is president today, and who was president in 2003. Perhaps the GOP has been born again as an austerity party to make amends for its fiscal sins during the Bush era, when it aided and abetted a massive spillage of red ink. Indeed, a few conservatives floated the "offset" argument after Katrina -- they insisted the cleanup be financed with money earmarked for fixing our crumbling infrastructure -- but House GOP leader Tom DeLay nixed the idea. In his view, "taking spending from infrastructure (programs) would undermine our ability to create the environment for a good economy."
But if Cantor and his crowd won't agree to finance the Irene cleanup via deficit spending (the norm since 1989), what programs -- and which Americans -- would have to suffer?
Of course, we already know who wouldn't suffer: the rich. If Republicans were to abandon their out-of-the-mainstream opposition to tax hikes for the rich, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all. But, absent that option, I'll bet that the new Republican norm will require that disaster relief be paid for with money previously earmarked for programs that aid average Americans. (The "offset" idea is bad governance anyway. How can agencies rationally plan their annual budgets if, in any given year, some money might be diverted to pay for unforeseen floods and hurricanes?)
Cantor and his defenders complain that the House Republicans are being unfairly maligned because earlier this year, long before Irene, they passed a bill mandating $1 billion in disaster relief -- only to see it languish in the Senate. What the Republicans don't tell you, however, is that they came up with those billion bucks by slashing other disaster-related spending. They want to cut FEMA's operating budget 6 percent -- not the wisest choice, in this era of unusually volatile weather. They also want to whack by 40 percent the federal funding that equips and trains first responders.
That should give you a taste of what they mean by "offsets." They never insist on "offsets" when America is called to address unforeseen military crises around the globe, so why should "offsets" be the new norm when Americans are in crisis at home?
One Republican ally sought to answer that question Tuesday on Fox News. In his words, "We don't have any money." So said Michael Brown, the infamous Bush appointee who ran FEMA during Katrina. Yep, "Heckuva job, Brownie" is bullish on the Scrooge ethos. That says it all.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.