The Republicans are at it again. Faced with an outbreak of tornadoes that have caused death and destruction throughout the Ohio River Valley area, the GOP has not worked to devote whatever resources are necessary to help the impacted communities. Instead, leading Republicans – most notably Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and Ron Paul – have rejected the idea that the federal government should play any role in providing disaster relief.
Last Friday and Saturday, as many as 79 tornadoes struck Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, which is likely the largest March outbreak of tornadoes in US history. At least 39 people were killed and towns such as Moscow, Ohio; Henryville, Indiana; and West Liberty, Kentucky, were devastated. In response, the Red Cross and numerous other organizations are working to provide aid, state and local government officials are stepping up to provide support, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) has informed the Governors of the three states that FEMA’s resources are available to help the impacted communities recover. Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has asked the federal government for disaster relief, and Indiana’s Senators have also promised to seek federal aid for their state.
Other Republicans, however, have decided to use the disaster as an opportunity to reject the idea that the federal government should provide support in disasters. Most egregiously, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has turned down federal aid for his state. As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported:
His decision means tornado-ravaged towns in Ohio will not get federal aid now and are not eligible at this time for potentially millions of dollars in payments and loans.
The governor said Ohio can respond to the crisis without federal help and he would not ask federal authorities to declare the region a disaster area.
“I believe that we can handle this,” Kasich said while visiting a shelter for storm victims at New Richmond High School. “We’ll have down here all the assets of the state.”
Similarly, GOP Presidential candidate Ron Paul attacked the idea of federal disaster relief, stating that “There is no such thing as federal money. Federal money is just what they steal from the states and steal from you and me. The people who live in tornado alley, just as I live in hurricane alley, they should have insurance.”
This is hardly a new sentiment for today’s GOP. For example, when Joplin, Missouri was demolished by tornadoes back in May 2011, Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor (R-VA), and other Republicans similarly attacked the idea of federal disaster relief. And the W. Bush Administration’s budget cuts, privatization, and crony governance at FEMA played a primary role in the debacle that was the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.
These attacks on disaster relief are yet another example of how many in today’s GOP are willing to prioritize their narrow, reactionary ideological agenda over the good of the American people. There are few more fundamental or important jobs for government than helping our fellow Americans get through and rebuild from a natural disaster. And that is exactly why the GOP is attacking it. In short, disaster relief is a huge flashpoint for conservative zealots because it goes to the heart of the philosophical debate between progressivism and conservatism.
On the progressive side, we believe that while government cannot and should not do everything, it can and should provide societal goods that individuals and the free market cannot or will not provide on their own. And disaster preparedness and relief is a prime example of such societal goods, as individuals cannot possibly be expected to deal with the full impacts of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and the “free” market is likely to respond to such disasters with price gouging and is certainly not going to fund rebuilding public infrastructure that is destroyed by the disaster.
Unfortunately, today’s conservatives have a pathological hatred of anything that suggests government – especially the federal government – might be able to help average Americans. So, they work to cut the budgets and preparedness of disaster relief agencies not only so they can free up more money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but also because they realize that inadequate government responses to disasters help undermine people’s faith in government as an instrument for good.
The most important thing we can do right now is to help the people and communities impacted by these tornadoes by donating to the Red Cross.
And we must also work to challenge conservatives’ ideological zealotry against federal disaster relief by reaffirming the fundamental role that the federal government can and must play in disaster relief, and making sure that disaster relief agencies like FEMA are sufficiently funded to be able to do their jobs effectively.