Editorial Board

Congress's Duty to Harvey's Victims

Once upon a time, disaster aid was not controversial.

Help.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to ravage Houston, there's a bit of good news amid the deluge: Congress looks likely to help out its victims without much fuss.

Providing relief to victims of natural disasters was once a fairly noncontroversial function of government. Every state recognized that it would need such help at some point. Petty politics were typically set aside in times of tragedy, and basic decency argued for helping those in need.

That broad consensus changed -- or seemed to -- after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the East Coast in 2012, at the eventual cost of $75 billion. For months, Congress delayed an emergency relief measure, leaving victims in limbo. When the main aid package finally did come up for a vote, it passed amid fierce opposition from Republicans in unaffected states.

They objected to spending in the bill that they considered wasteful or unrelated to the storm, including outlays for some preventative measures and aid for victims of previous disasters. Some insisted on commensurate cuts elsewhere in the budget -- an unprecedented demand for such a bill.

Texas Republicans -- including Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn -- were among the most vocal opponents of the relief package. In the end, all but one Republican member of the state's House delegation voted against it. Thankfully, as Texas now faces its own epic tragedy, their colleagues from other states seem to be in a forgiving mood.

"Ted Cruz & Texas cohorts voted vs NY/NJ aid after Sandy but I'll vote 4 Harvey aid," wrote New York Representative Peter King, passive-aggressively, on Twitter. "NY won't abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesn't deserve another."

That's the right sentiment. Houston is already in dire shape, and the waters are still rising. In addition to the grim human toll, much of the city may need to be rebuilt. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reckons that 450,000 people may need help. Costs could eventually exceed $100 billion. Faced with a flood of such dimensions, squalid political bickering makes even less sense than it normally does.

The truth is that severe storms like Harvey are likely to become more common in the next few decades, and disasters of that magnitude can only be navigated with federal help. Congress should of course be prudent in dispensing that assistance. But it should also remember that the U.S. is a rich country, and can afford to help people in need. Unfortunately, there may well be a lot of them in the years ahead.

    --Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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