Hurricane Irene: Where will the government get the money to pay for the cleanup?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 29 2011 7:31 PM

Every Day Is a Rainy Day

Eric Cantor's rule: Money to help those affected by Irene will have to come from somewhere else in the federal budget.

Billy Stinson's cottage built in 1903 in Nags Head, N.C., was destroyed by Hurricane Irene. Click image to expand.
Hurricane Irene's destruction in Nags Head, N.C.

If Michele Bachmann is right, and God plagued the land with earthquakes and hurricanes to send us a political message, then He must want us to pay attention to Eric Cantor. The 5.8 earthquake that rattled much of the Mid-Atlantic started in Mineral, Va., a small town in the majority leader's district. Hurricane Irene terrorized tourists, residents, and anchormen all over the region, and it did real damage to the stretch of eastern Virginia that sends Cantor to Congress.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Cantor toured his district. He saw the damage. He got asked whether Republicans would help rebuild, and then he made Democratic heads explode.

"We will find the money if there is a need for additional money," Cantor told Fox News on Monday. "But those monies are not unlimited, and we have said we have to offset that which has already been funded."

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Offsets? Really? For a natural disaster? Yes, really. Cantor had already said that money to restore Joplin, Mo., from devastating tornadoes had to be paid for with cuts, not loans. Even Missouri Republicans had agreed with him. Cantor's not making a mistake when he mused about cuts-for-relief in his own district. He's sounding like former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said in 2008—correctly!—that a crisis was an "opportunity to do things that you could not do before."

Before, Republicans couldn't even have this argument. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, House and Senate conservatives suggested that any aid to the Gulf Coast had to be matched by cuts. The plan that got the furthest came from a team of Senate hard-liners who called for a delay in the Medicare Part D benefit and a 5 percent cut across the board to everything but Homeland Security and Defense spending. (Since 2002, FEMA—and its pricey insurance mandates—has been part of DHS.) "We need to separate those things that we must do from those that we would like to do," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said it was a perfect time to stop the $230 million "bridge to nowhere." Why let a good crisis go to waste?

The late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who kind of wanted that bridge, dismissed his colleagues as "people looking for the headlines." He ran the appropriations committee in the Senate. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said outright that it would be "worth borrowing" to avoid cuts and that "taking spending from infrastructure spending would undermine our ability to create the environment for a good economy." He effectively ran the House. The GOP's cuts-for-Katrina insurgency died in the nursery.

That was six years ago. The Republicans who doubted DeMint have all been sidelined. The public that shuddered at cuts-for-Katrina grew up and learned about how FEMA money and relief funds were shelved or wasted. (We know it was more than $1 billion.) According to former staff, DeLay's jitters had a lot to do with the moral panic about how the government had failed and a sense that it would have been bad politics to cut against that.

Compare 2005 to now: 1,464 deaths to 24 deaths. In 2005, the estimated cost of Katrina recovery was as high as $200 billion; the final cost was $122 billion. In 2011, the Kinetic Analysis Corporation—one of the independent groups that estimates this stuff—has cut its initial $20 billion damage estimate for Irene to between $5 billion and $10 billion. The people who fled New York and the Jersey shore and low-lying parts of Vermont, the Washingtonians waiting for Pepco to restore their damn electricity already, breathe deeply and think: This is horrible, but it could have been worse.

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