WASHINGTON ― Texas Republicans, long accustomed to bashing the federal government, are already changing their tune now that Hurricane Harvey has devastated parts of their state.
An emergency aid package hasn’t surfaced yet, but Congress almost certainly will have to approve a spending bill to help those affected by the hurricane-force winds and widespread flooding in southeastern Texas. The question is whether that money will be offset by cuts to other government programs, whether extraneous spending will be attached to the package, and whether, under any circumstances, Texas Republicans will have a problem voting for it.
Money to help those in need from a lawmaker’s homestate isn’t a particularly tough vote. At this point, no Texas Republican has declared any sort of condition for their support of an emergency aid package. But when it was New York and New Jersey hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, all but one Texas Republican in Congress ― Rep. John Culberson ― voted against a $50.5 billion package to help people in those states.
That was no surprise. The Texas delegation tends to speak with one voice, and there’s little political repercussions for its members to vote against government largesse for another state.
Many Republicans at the time said they took issue with unrelated spending that was attached to the Sandy bill, though most of the funding was directed at helping the storm’s victims. And even some of the most derided provisions ― like $2 million to repair Smithsonian roofs in Washington ― were, in fact, related to that storm (it brought heavy wind and rain to that nation’s capital, as well.)
Overall, according to an analysis of the legislation compiled by CQ, the Sandy aid bill included $16 billion for community development programs, $11.5 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, $10.9 billion for transportation system repairs, $5.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects, $800 million for social service programs, and $826 million for repairs to national parks and facilities.
But Texas Republicans latched onto the notion that the Sandy relief package was full of wasteful spending. When the Senate was voting on the bill in early 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) railed against the “unrelated spending, including projects such as Smithsonian repairs, upgrades to National Oceanic and Atmospheric airplanes, and more funding for Head Start.”
Again, the Smithsonian repairs ― representing .004 percent of the money appropriated ― were related to Sandy, and the upgrades and repairs to NOAA aircraft were to help with future hurricane forecasting. The money for Head Start, meanwhile, was available only to those facilities damaged by Sandy.
On Monday, when Cruz was asked about voting against Sandy aid in 2013 but now openly seeking help for his state, he said there would be time for “political sniping” later.
“The problem with that particular bill,” Cruz said of the Sandy package on MSNBC, “is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy, and what I said then and still believe now is that it’s not right for politicians to exploit a disaster and people hurting to pay for their own political wishlist.”
Cruz seems to be referring to the fact that only $17 billion of the package was for immediate relief and recovery needs, while other spending was for longer-term projects.
Notwithstanding Cruz’s call for a moratorium on “political sniping,” some New York and New Jersey Republicans couldn’t help but take a few shots at the Texas delegation on Monday, even as they affirmed that they would support those people in need.
Rep. Peter King, whose district encompasses parts of Long Island, tweeted that he wouldn’t “abandon Texas the way Ted Cruz did New York;” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the Texas lawmakers “hypocrites;” and Rep. Frank LoBiondo of the Garden State tweeted that despite the stance of his Texas colleagues on the Sandy relief package, he would support emergency money for their constituents.
Overall, 23 of the 24 Texas Republicans then in the House voted against the Sandy package. And joining Cruz in opposing it was the state’s other senator, John Cornyn (who’s now that chamber’s majority whip).
HuffPost reached out Monday morning to the offices of the 20 Texas Republicans still in the House, as well as staff members for Cruz and Cornyn, with questions that included whether they thought emergency aid for their state ought to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere and whether they could commit to backing the storm-related funding even if it is not offset and the bill contains some extraneous spending provisions.
As of late Monday afternoon, only House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions’ staff responded and ― no shocker here ― the lawmaker has no reservations about supporting aid for Texas.
With President Donald Trump already touting his administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey, members of his team also find themselves facing a course reversal from their previous political principles.
Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, as a House member from Indiana led the conservative call to offset emergency spending in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hammered Louisiana and Mississippi. Pence said Monday he expected Congress to make resources available for Texas, with no mention of strings attached.
Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney ― who as a House member from South Carolina pushed for offsets to the Sandy bill’s spending and voted against the package ― now will be in charge of putting together the administration’s emergency request for Texas. Hardly anyone expects Mulvaney to insist that those emergency dollars be paid for with cuts elsewhere.
It’s possible that the package just gets attached to an upcoming bill to keep the government operating past Sept. 30. In that case, a number of Republicans ― including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who opposed the Sandy bill ― could be spared from the political hypocrisy of supporting aid now.
After all, they could explain their “yes” vote by simply focusing on the need to keep the government open. And they’ll be able to decide if supporting aid for the next natural disaster fits with their political agenda without worry that someone might throw this vote back in their face.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the money to repair roof damage to Smithsonian museums included in the Hurricane Sandy aid bill represented .00004 percent of the legislation’s total. The correct figure is .004 percent.