Politicizing national disasters shows politicans' hypocrisy, risks victims

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On Oct. 26, 2012, four states (NY, MD, NC, PA) and the District of Columbia declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. Over the ensuing weekend, four more states (NJ, CT, MA, RI) joined them. With winds up to 80 mph, Hurricane Sandy approached land as a Category 2 storm on Monday, Oct. 29, depriving 7.9 million households and businesses of electrical power. The tropical cyclone closed the New York Stock Exchange, the United Nations headquarters, countless government offices, and a myriad of transit services throughout the region, leaving 11 million commuters stranded.

In the following months, Congress scrambled to draft a bill to provide relief to Hurricane Sandy victims. Ultimately, on Jan. 29, 2013, Congress approved the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. However, to the surprise of many, 179 House Republicans voted against the package, with 23 out of 24 Texas Republicans voting no.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was a notably outspoken opponent of the relief package. “Emergency relief for the families who are suffering from this natural disaster should not be used as a Christmas tree for billions in unrelated spending,” said Cruz. “The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt.”

Cruz's characterization that the package was “[funding] pork projects” and “a Christmas tree for billions in unrelated spending” was short-lived, however. Upon the Obama administration’s request, the Congressional Research Service issued a report on Feb. 29 that verified that virtually all of the funds were being allocated towards actual relief and restoration projects.

Today, with the recent impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we sense the unpleasant feeling of déjà vu as we watch politicians respond to the catastrophes in Texas and Florida.

“This storm has done historic damage to Houston, my hometown… the flooding has exceeded anything the city has ever seen before,” said Cruz on MSNBC, Aug. 28. In response to a question by Katy Tur regarding his change in stance on federal aid from Hurricane Sandy to Harvey, Cruz replied that “there’s time for political sniping later; I think our focus needs to be on this crisis and this disaster… two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.”

Since his controversial remarks, numerous political figures have called out Cruz for his alleged double standard.

“Many Texas reps and notoriously, @SenTedCruz fought against Sandy aid, so crucial to CT,” posted Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) on Twitter. “Going with my better angels to fight FOR Texas aid.”

A more pointed critique was issued by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who told CNN that Cruz is “repeating the same reprehensible lies about what happened in Sandy [and] called on Congress Wednesday morning to work quickly on a bill to aid Texas after Hurricane Harvey.”

Before accusing Cruz and other Texas Republicans with hypocrisy, we ought to make some concessions. Hurricane Harvey was truly an unprecedented Category 4 storm, with winds up to 130 mph, that indisputably wreaked greater havoc on the South than Sandy did on the Northeast.

Nonetheless, despite the difference in magnitude of these storms, what should remain constant is the consensus of members of Congress from around the United States to provide relief and aid to regions in need. This is not an issue that specifically pertains to liberals or conservatives; it is an issue that plagues the political system as a whole.

Granted, the fixed stance of Texas Republicans, such as that of Cruz, that the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 was a misallocation of funds — even with the aforementioned report that reinforced the integrity of the bill — makes it easy to point fingers at those Republicans for hypocrisy and politicization of such crises, especially at a time when the same politicians are urging for federal aid for Hurricane Harvey victims in “red states.”

Yet, we must take a look at the broader picture. We constantly witness debates on both sides of the aisle about “politicizing” events such as mass shootings, natural disasters, and other nation-wide emergencies.

This impasse, perpetuated by the growing divide between the two major political parties, must cease in the name of unity. Sure, debates can be fruitful and are often necessary; politics requires citizens to engage in discourse on the nation’s most pressing issues. Nevertheless, certain values — in this case, the safety of citizens — must transcend political wrangle; after all, one of the most fundamental responsibilities of governments is to maintain the welfare of its citizens. Adopting this mentality is the only way that the United States can dispose of the persistent regionalism and polarization that divides society. Without it, the victims of Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, and Irma will only be remembered as statistics from a politician's speech.