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Rand Paul demands federal disaster aid for Kentucky, after voting against it for everyone else

Michael Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
In this image from video, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks on the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

Consider the two faces of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

First, the Rand Paul of Dec. 11, writing to President Biden after a string of tornadoes devastated his home state, killing at least 64 and leveling whole communities:

"The Governor of the Commonwealth has requested federal assistance this morning, and certainly further requests will be coming as the situation is assessed. I fully support those requests and ask that you move expeditiously to approve the appropriate resources for our state."

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Second, the Rand Paul of Oct. 24, 2017, on the Senate floor opposing a $36.5 billion disaster aid bill to help residents of Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria as well as victims of wildfires in California:

"People here will say they have great compassion and they want to help the people of Puerto Rico, the people of Texas, the people of Florida, but notice they have great compassion with someone else's money. Ask them what they're doing to help their fellow man."

One almost feels guilty pointing out the hypocrisy of people like Paul because it's just so easy. A cursory glance at the Republican's record indicates that he has consistently opposed federal disaster relief measures.

The received wisdom is that he has voted against every one for the last 10 years; it's hard to confirm that precisely, but examples of his speaking against most of them are easy to find.

Paul also has opposed coronavirus relief measures, such as the first pandemic response act, passed in March 2020 with a 96-1 senate vote, Rand standing against it alone. He also opposed a 2020 bill to aid first responders still suffering from the effects of 9/11.

On disaster aid, Paul voted against a 2013 bill to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy, and earlier this year blocked accelerated passage of the Gulf Coast Hurricane Aid Act, a measure to aid victims of the storms in Louisiana. It's still pending.

In all those cases, Paul has couched his opposition as protests against the funding for those bills, specifically the borrowing to pay for them. He's argued that they should all be funded by taking money from other causes, specifically from foreign aid, about which he's strongly critical.

Hypocritical: One would like to admire Paul for consistency, at least, except that he's been selective about his anti-spending positions. He voted in favor of the 2017 tax cuts, one of the largest budget-busting measures in recent history (and one that chiefly benefits rich people), for instance. The tax cuts passed the Senate without a single Republican in opposition or a single Democrat in favor.

That points to a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to disaster aid. Republicans are cheeseparing about public aid until and unless it's for their constituents specifically; Democrats tend to see the issue broadly, favoring these programs regardless of geography.

Republican posturing against disaster aid "for thee, but not for me" is a hardy perennial on Capitol Hill. In 2019, noted the Center for American Progress, 43 of the 58 GOP House members who voted against a $19 billion disaster relief bill had earlier "demanded or endorsed emergency aid funding for their own states."

The measure, which had already been approved by the Senate, passed the House 354-58, with all the "no" votes coming from Republicans.

In 2013, a $50.5 billion relief package for Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated the Northeast, was opposed by 36 Republican senators. Of those votes, 31 came from Republicans who had previously sought disaster aid for their own states.

Among the opponents were Paul and Senators Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who had both sought relief aid for their own states from Hurricane Sandy.

Through his congressional office, Paul told me, "The truth is that I've consistently advocated for FEMA disaster money for KY over my 11 years in office, dozens of times." Well, yes. But what about when disasters strike outside Kentucky? Paul continued, "When additional supplemental disaster funds above that budgeted each year have been sought, I have asked that the additional money come from cutting waste elsewhere in the budget."

Of course, waste in government budgets are often in the eyes of the beholder. Paul thinks that foreign aid is a "waste." Not everyone might agree.

Swinger: On occasion, savvy politicians can use disasters elsewhere to secure money for their own purposes. The best example of this dates from the 1920s, when the Imperial Valley's congressman, Phil Swing, needed to quell opposition to the Boulder Canyon Act, which would fund the project that became Hoover Dam.

A 1927 flood on the Mississippi killed 246 people, sweeping away bridges and breaching the levees over a thousand-mile stretch of the river. A member of the House Flood Control Committee, Swing convened hearings on a levee construction program costing an unprecedented $300 million and invited New Orleans business and political leaders to attend.

"I took on the New Orleans men one after another," Swing would recount, "putting to them again and again whether they could see any difference between the Mississippi's flood threat to their people and the Colorado River flood threat to the people of the Imperial Valley…. The Editor of the New Orleans Picayune came up to give me warm assurances that they would all work for my bill." The bill passed, and the dam project was launched four years later.

Raising spending issues to denigrate projects you think are irrelevant to your own constituents has been known to devolve into farce. Remember the GOP response to President Obama's first State of the Union message in 2009? Then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the designated responder being puffed up at the time as a potential presidential candidate, mined Obama's recession recovery bill for provisions he could ridicule.

The measure included "$140 million for something called volcano monitoring," Jindal mocked. "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C." Less than one month later, Alaska's Mt. Redoubt erupted, threatening Anchorage with an ash storm and forcing the delay or cancellation of commercial flights that passed over the area.

Leaving aside that active volcanoes around the U.S. potentially threaten thousands of Americans with mudslides, poisonous gas emissions and lava flows, the $140 million Jindal cited covered not only volcano monitoring, but economic recovery funds for his own state.

Republicans aren't alone in exploiting budget fears to hobble government assistance. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has set a new standard for the practice by opposing relief measures that would help his own state more than most others.

"Few states are as reliant as West Virginia on federal money, or get back more than residents pay in taxes," my colleague Jackie Calmes observed in reviewing Manchin's opposition to elements of President Biden's Build Back Better plan. "Manchin's constituents relied on federal aid for 33.3% of all personal income last year," compared with 20% in California.

Among the provisions of the spending bill Manchin says he opposes are paid family and medical leave, home health care services and an extension of the child tax credit, all of which would flow to struggling West Virginians.

Never learn: Congressional critics of government spending aren't above taking credit for it when it serves their constituents. That's been the case with coronavirus aid and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill passed by Congress in November despite the opposition of 200 GOP members of the House and 30 of the 50 Republican senators (including Paul).

Among those who have bragged about money reaching their districts or states from these bills after having voted against them are House members Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Gary Palmer of Alabama and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

The lesson that conservatives are constantly confronted with but never learn is that we're all in this world together. Disasters, whether climatological, meteorological or biological, know nothing of geographic boundaries, much less political or ideological ones.

Conservatives oppose government spending on infrastructure and social programs only rhetorically because they do know a few things. They know the spending will help their constituents. They also know that the best way to establish their conservative cred is to oppose it, especially when they know it will pass anyway.

Most of all, they know that more responsible political leaders will ensure that assistance gets to those in need, regardless of how their political representatives vote. Those elected representatives are happy to see the money, they just won't lift a finger to bring it home. There's a word for this sort of behavior: It's "freeloading."

— Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.