WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Isaac bears down on the Gulf Coast, there should be plenty of money – some $1.5 billion – in federal disaster aid coffers, thanks, in part, to a new system that budgets help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur.
It's a system that Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee-to-be for vice president, had hoped to scrap as a way to make his House GOP budget look smaller by about $10 billion a year. Politely, party elders told him no way, at least for now.
Capitol Hill Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were the driving force behind the new disaster funding scheme and made it part of last summer's hard-fought budget pact with backing from President Barack Obama. Prior to that, the president had given short shrift to budgeting for disasters before a spate of them early last year, including tornadoes that ripped through Missouri and Alabama.
Congresses and administrations, after all, always had been fairly forthcoming with whatever disaster aid was needed after the fact, though the rise to power of tea party Republicans contributed to delays in providing disaster money last year.
The new system means disaster aid will not have to compete with other programs for financing, nor have to rely on less certain ad hoc funding at the height of a crisis.
Instead, disaster money was added on top of the official budget "cap" in line with the amounts budgeted in prior years.
It had been a different story earlier in the year as the government's chief disaster fund almost ran dry, thanks to foot-dragging by the White House and demands by tea party House Republicans that disaster aid be partly "paid for" with cuts to programs that Obama favored. The administration instead let the political pressure build as disaster accounts dwindled, sparking the ire of both his GOP rivals and allies like Landrieu, but turning the tables in its favor.
Months after agreeing to the new regime, Republican leaders still had to turn to procedural maneuvers to orchestrate passage of $8.8 billion in disaster money over the opposition of tea party lawmakers to keep the agreement. Ryan, the House Budget Committee's chairman, was among 66 Republicans opposing the measure.
"Some Republicans are still fighting this," Landrieu said in an interview Tuesday. "And it is kind of ironic that the storm was at some point headed towards Tampa during their convention. That would have been the irony of all ironies for this storm to hit Tampa when the Republicans were the ones saying `we need to find offsets'" for disaster aid.
But, as has been proven time after time – especially as tornadoes and hurricanes rip through politically conservative states – even the sturdiest tea party supporters like the government when it comes to doling out money to storm victims for motels and other temporary housing and to help with house repairs.
Simply put, when disaster strikes, politicians respond – sometimes to the dismay of conservatives who see politicians milking disasters to win projects that couldn't fly on their own, like Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's failed bid six years ago for $700 million to relocate a rail line along the Gulf Coast so his state could build a new east-west highway.
The new system makes it more difficult for lawmakers to try such maneuvers, though such "pork barrel" tactics largely have been halted anyway with the GOP takeover of the House, with Republicans instituting a ban on so-called earmarks.
Many House Republicans, however, are unhappy with the new approach. Ryan earlier this year tried to gut it and eliminate $10 billion a year in disaster costs when putting together the House GOP budget.
But in doing so Ryan sideswiped a still-powerful Appropriations Committee that was still stinging from $19 billion in Budget Committee-induced cuts to last year's deal. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., protested to GOP leaders and won a gentleman's agreement that the new system would stay in place, at least for this year.
However, Ryan's point of view might still prevail if Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.
What Ryan proposes is that when disaster strikes, lawmakers scour the rest of the budget for savings to pay for rebuilding homes, roads and schools and helping small businesses. Put another way, instead of being an excuse to increase spending, disasters would offer an opportunity to make further cuts elsewhere in the government.
That's easier said than done. The portion of the budget that would face cuts – the day-to-day operating expenses for federal agencies – already has absorbed several rounds of cuts under GOP control of the House and faces almost a decade's worth of tight limits under last year's budget deal.
And should a huge disaster like Hurricane Katrina hit, it's simply unrealistic to find cuts of the magnitude required. Katrina ended up costing taxpayers more than $60 billion. Much of that money was approved when images of hurricane victims were still fresh in the minds of lawmakers and voters and as the George W. Bush administration continued to reel from its initial botched response.
It's also easier to summon the political fortitude to demand that disaster relief be paid for when the area you represent hasn't been hit. In particularly bad disaster years, political pressure accumulates as the toll of Midwestern floods, Southern tornadoes and coastal storms is felt by more and more voters and their representatives.
That's exactly what happened last year in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which prompted liberals like Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and tea party-backed Republicans like Rep. Nan Hayworth of New York to form a coalition to press for aid.
Also on HuffPost:
"Throughout his life, Mitt Romney has made great decisions, and choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate is a truly inspired choice. I got to know Paul during my Senate campaign when he endorsed me early on when I was still considered a long shot. Paul Ryan is a courageous reformer who understands our nation's challenges, has proposed bold policy solutions to solve them, and has shown the courage to stand up to President Obama and other Washington politicians trying to tear him down. "The Romney-Ryan ticket is going to win in November because it offers the American people visionary leadership to recapture the free enterprise spirit that has empowered countless Americans to build businesses from scratch and live the American dream. I'm excited about the visionary change a Romney-Ryan team will bring to Washington, and I look forward to campaigning
<blockquote> "Mitt Romney has made a great choice in Paul Ryan. He is an accomplished public servant and a leading voice on the most pressing issues facing our country. Paul is one of my best friends in Congress and someone I have worked closely with as a former colleague on the House Ways & Means Committee. "Jane and I wish Paul and Janna and their kids the very best. As the Chairman of the Romney campaign in Ohio, I look forward to working with Paul to ensure that the Romney-Ryan ticket carries Ohio and is victorious in November. Most importantly, as a member of the Senate, I look forward to working closely with a Romney-Ryan Administration to restore fiscal sanity and enact pro-growth policies to create jobs."</blockquote>
Obama for American Campaign Manager Jim Messina
<blockquote>"In naming Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy. The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid. His plan also would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors. As a member of Congress, Ryan rubber-stamped the reckless Bush economic policies that exploded our deficit and crashed our economy. Now the Romney-Ryan ticket would take us back by repeating the same, catastrophic mistakes."</blockquote>
Rachel Maddow MSNBC
Charles M. Blow
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee issued the following statement: <blockquote>"Paul Ryan is a right-wing extremist who wants to end Medicare. This is a major unforced error by Mitt Romney. It gives President Obama and Democrats a chance to draw a clear contrast in 2012 by promising not to cut one penny from Medicare or Social Security benefits. If Democrats win in a landslide, this was the game changer." -- Adam Green, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a 1 million member grassroots organization</blockquote>
Susan B. Anthony List
The national pro-life organization released the following statement: <blockquote>"By selecting Congressman Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Governor Romney demonstrates his commitment to protecting American women and unborn children," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List. "A longtime pro-life advocate and a strong fiscal conservative, Congressman Ryan has insisted that there can be no 'truce' when it comes to advancing the rights of the unborn and achieving fiscal responsibility. He has a pristine pro-life voting record and will be an asset to Governor Romney's campaign. "Pro-life voters are a key demographic and help secure victory in critical elections," continued Dannenfelser. "The addition of a second strong pro-life leader to the ticket energizes the pro-life base - we are thrilled with this pick."</blockquote>
<blockquote>"The selection of Paul Ryan is a bold and inspired pick," said Jimmy LaSalvia, Executive Director of GOProud. "Paul Ryan has been the architect of policies that would benefit all Americans, especially gay Americans." "Paul Ryan is one of the few political leaders anywhere in the country willing to tell the American people the truth about the unprecedented budget crisis we are facing, and - more importantly - willing to put forward bold plans to put this country back on the road to fiscal solvency," continued LaSalvia.</blockquote>
Log Cabin Republicans
<blockquote>"Congressman Paul Ryan is a strong choice for vice president, and his addition to the GOP ticket will help Republican candidates up and down the ballot," said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director. "As chairman of the House Budget Committee and author of the Republican "path to prosperity" that provided the blueprint for serious spending cuts in this Congress, nobody is more qualified to articulate a conservative economic vision to restore the American economy and stimulate job creation. </blockquote>
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
Center For American Progress President Neera Tanden
<blockquote>"Just like Sen. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and George H.W. Bush's selection of Dan Quayle, Mitt Romney has been cowed by the right wing into choosing an extreme vice presidential nominee who will alienate moderate voters. It's now clearer than ever that as president, Mitt Romney would end Medicare as we know it, and will raise taxes on middle class families by more than $2,000in order to slash taxes on the wealthiest Americans. While there is a lot that can be said about Paul Ryan's extreme views, more important is what this choice says about Mitt Romney: that he is unwilling or unable to stand up to the far-right of his party and select a vice-presidential candidate that is both able to be president on day one and capable of governing by reaching across the aisle."</blockquote>
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry
<blockquote>"If there were ever any doubt that Mitt Romney is not on the side of working people, today's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate makes it crystal clear. With this choice, Romney has shown the American people that he believes Rep. Ryan's extremist, irresponsible and anti-worker agenda is what's right for our country. "Rep. Ryan has made a name for himself by fighting in the halls of Congress for tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations while proposing to gut vital services like Medicare and education, and eliminating any sense of retirement security for working families. His no-holds barred record of attacking seniors, children, and working men and women is frightening for the 99 percent of Americans who are not rich -- but for Mitt Romney it was a calling card to choose him as a running mate."
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan
<blockquote>"Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Ryan as his running mate reminds us of why elections matter when it comes to our ability to make personal and private medical decisions," Keenan continued. "The outcome of the 2012 presidential election very well could determine whether abortion remains legal and accessible for the next generation of American women. Romney has pledged that taking away women's rights will be a priority for him and his choice of Ryan amplifies that promise to the extreme anti-choice backers of this ticket. My organization's priority is to make sure President Obama remains in the White House."</blockquote>
Rep. Kathy Hochul
<blockquote>"Americans deserve new ideas for how we can reduce the debt and protect our seniors and the middle class. Just one year ago, Western New York voters rejected the Ryan-Collins policies that would end Medicare as we know it and hurt middle class families while giving more tax cuts to the rich. Our country needs to move forward, not re-hash failed ideas. Given Chris Collins' ongoing support for tax cuts for the rich that add nearly $1 trillion to the deficit and his willingness to send his business to China to line his pockets, it is clear my opponent is going to continue to pursue policies and priorities that have already been rejected."</blockquote>
Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Chris Van Hollen
Rep. Mary Bono Mack
Rep. Trent Franks
<blockquote>"Now that Paul Ryan's personal ambition has clearly trumped his interest in the First District, I have no doubt he'll find himself out of a job come November. Once Wisconsinites and voters across our country learn the truth about Ryan's radical plot to end Medicare as we know it, de-fund women's health care, and preserve tax breaks for millionaires, they'll vote against him not just once, but twice. In the coming weeks, our campaign will work with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to continue getting the word out on Ryan's indefensible record, and building momentum to ensure victory on Election Day."</blockquote>
<blockquote>"Governor Mitt Romney made a bold and reform-minded selection in Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. This election has to be about who is going to look out for the next generation. America needs a comeback team to turn around the economy and to turn around the fiscal status of our country. Romney and Ryan have the ideas and the experience needed to take on these core issues. This is a great day for Wisconsin and an even greater day for America."</blockquote>