Oklahoma foes of big government want aid ‘without delay’

    “Big government” is a convenient conservative bogeyman – until tragedy strikes.  But now, with death and devastation in their own backyard, here’s Tom Coburn: “As the ranking member of the committee that oversees FEMA, I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay.”

     

    “Big government” is a convenient conservative bogeyman – until tragedy strikes.

     

    Consider red-state Oklahoma, and its two Republican senators, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe. Back in 2011, when all was well in their own backyard, Coburn and Inhofe sought to undercut the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Inhofe tried to cut money for FEMA storm shelter programs. Coburn voted not to re-fund FEMA after it temporarily ran out of money; he said that re-funding would have been “unconscionable.”

    A year later, after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore and swaths of the northeast, Inhofe and Coburn did their best to drag their feet on federal disaster aid. They complained about “wasteful spending” and a “slush fund.” They tried to cut the aid by $27 billion. Ultimately, after many weeks of delay, lawmakers $60 billion to the victims of Sandy – but Coburn and Inhofe joined 34 other Republican senators in voting No.

    But now, with death and devastation in their own backyard, here’s Coburn: “As the ranking member of the committee that oversees FEMA, I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay.”

    Here’s Coburn again yesterday, talking about FEMA: “They have some expertise that most states can’t afford to have, and they’re applying that expertise – whether it be search and rescue dogs, or mortuary help. They have a long line of things – so there’s a legitimate role.”

    Any and all aid…Without delay...A legitimate role…Funny how all the “nanny state” abstractions melt away when life gets real.

    In one respect, however, Coburn is at least trying to be consistent: He says that Oklahoma’s federal disaster aid should not be a blank check, that it should be paid for with corresponding cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. He said the same thing in 2011, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. (This insistence on budget “offsets” is the new conservative doctrine. During the Bush era, conservatives didn’t utter a peep when Bush expanded Medicare prescriptions and fought two wars without paying for any of them.)

    Anyway, Coburn’s consistency could complicate matters back home. If he truly believes that Oklahoma should get no disaster aid unless there are corresponding budget cuts elsewhere, then the lawmakers in Washington would have to decide where else to cut (and who suffers from those cuts). That debate, by definition, would spark protracted skirmishes with Democrats, and delay the delivery of “any and all aid” to Oklahoma.” Yet Coburn says he wants that aid delivered “without delay.”

    In other words, if he hews to his ideological purity, he could hurt his state. Fortunately, many of his Republican colleagues want to rescue him from his dilemma. They want to forego any debate about “offsets” and simply send the requisite federal aid. Yep, this is no time for nanny-state rhetoric, the kind of balanced-budget boilerplate that shows up in right-wing fundraising letters; red-state Oklahoma wants big government aid, and it wants it now.

    As John McCain told reporters yesterday, “The important thing is to get assistance to these people as quickly as possible.” And on the House side, Speaker John Boehner vowed to “work with the Obama administration on making sure that they have the resources they need to help the people of Oklahoma.” (I bet his chamber will move faster than it did last winter, when it dragged its feet on helping the people of New Jersey.)

    But while the tornado’s aftermath poses political challenges for the Republicans, it challenges President Obama as well. He’s sending FEMA into the field at a time when many Americans are newly skeptical about the workings of government – most notably, the IRS imbroglio. The last thing Obama needs right now is for FEMA to screw up.

    In a radio address back in April ’09, Obama said that he aspires “to make your government more efficient and effective….I will work every single day that I am president to live up to that responsibility, and to transform our government so that it is held to a higher standard of performance on behalf of the American people.”

    This is an opportunity, in Oklahoma, for the feds to show that big goverment can work effectively. And Tom Coburn, a past foe of FEMA, has already tendered the invitation.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

     

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