Columns » Max Brantley

Aid politics

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The still-unfolding catastrophe in Houston is, first, a human tragedy. But when politicians try to tell you that a time of enormous human tragedy is not a time to talk about politics, it likely means the politics are embarrassing to them.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for example, doesn't want to talk about his vote and that of many other Texas Republican congressmen against aid packages for Northeastern states after Hurricane Sandy. Politics later, they say.

No, let's talk politics now, when we can anticipate the future, not merely react. And let's remember misjudgments of the past so that they are not repeated. For my part, I choose to remember then-U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who voted time and again against legislation to help the Sandy-stricken in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

Cotton argued that the aid packages were bloated. But there was no bloat in the legislation to replenish the fund that pays claims under the federal flood insurance program. He alone among Arkansas congressmen voted against that legislation. He said he could have been persuaded to vote for flood aid if the money had come in cuts elsewhere in the budget. Then-Sen. Mark Pryor tried to use Cotton's heartlessness against him. But. Cotton's opposition to Obamacare helped him defeat Pryor. Cotton also voted against numerous other categorical Sandy spending bills: FEMA's disaster aid fund, mass transit, housing, veteran facilities, rebuilding sea walls in a national park and even the Coast Guard, those heroic lifesavers targeted by Trump for budget cuts this year.

Obamacare and federal disaster aid are both products of a belief in universal responsibility for general welfare. Each seems expensive until it's your sick child or your homeless neighbor without resources to cope.

So we must talk politics.

Days before Harvey hit, for example, Donald Trump said we must roll back requirements to consider climate change and sea-level rise when building roads and bridges. Seems unwise today, doesn't it?

Trump doesn't believe in climate change. But many scientists believe the warmer Gulf waters helped build Harvey's wind speed and take up more water, increasing both the storm surge and storm rainfall.

Billy Fleming, a University of Arkansas graduate, spent three years studying Houston as a Ph.D. candidate. He's posted insightful assessments on Twitter about the political issues that have been ignored there. Coastal land management, for example. Building in flood zones. Also a lack of adequate investment in flood-protection measures before a disaster, not after. He writes that the Harvey disaster in Houston is not just an act of God but "is the product of a disinterested political class in Houston — the physical manifestation of a decades-long failure of government."

It's not a local problem. Houston is of national consequence as a petrochemical producer and industrial port. Most military fuel is produced in refineries near Houston, Fleming writes.

Our shared stake — in both the military-industrial complex and humanity — demands that we move whatever mountains of money are necessary to help Houston rebuild. No congressman should dare suggest repaying one bad turn by Texas congressmen and the likes of Tom Cotton after Sandy with another bad turn.

We can guess that Tom Cotton will not issue a statement post-Harvey such as he issued to defend his vote against Sandy aid: "I pledged throughout my campaign to confront America's debt crisis and today I upheld that pledge by voting against legislation that would have added another $10 billion to our staggering national debt because it did not offset that funding for the national flood-insurance program with equal spending cuts."

Such talk was missing from Cotton in recent Arkansas needs for disaster aid. But — if he is serious about eliminating unnecessary spending — there's that wall he and Donald Trump want to build. Better we should open the gates at Laredo to the Mexicans who've volunteered to help their sometimes hostile neighbors to the north rebuild.

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