When a massive tornado obliterated the town of Joplin, Missouri earlier this year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters that if the disaster ultimately required the government to step in and provide aid, it would have to be offset by cutting spending on other federal programs.
“If there is support for a supplemental, it would be accompanied by support for having pay-fors to that supplemental,” he said, using the anodyne language of budget policy.
Three months later, when a modest earthquake struck the town of Mineral, Virginia in his own district, and caused minor, but widespread damage along the eastern seaboard, Cantor upheld the standard. Congress, he said, “will find the monies” to help victims, but that “those monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere.”
Now, in the wake of Hurricane Irene — a much costlier natural disaster — Cantor may make the same demand, which could touch off a bitter fight on Capitol Hill.“We aren’t going to speculate on damage before it happens, period,” his staff told me Thursday when I asked about the impending storm. “But, as you know, Eric has consistently said that additional funds for federal disaster relief ought to be offset with spending cuts.”
This is a big problem. The budget is already stretched very thin, and even Cantor has asked his members not to provoke another fight about cutting spending beyond its already agreed-upon levels. And if clean-up costs reach into the billions, paying for it by cutting spending will damage other important services, despite the fact that the usual standard is to not use natural disasters as political bargaining chips.
Three things are going on here by my count. First, Republicans have learned an obvious lesson since they retook the House — that they can control the agenda in Washington, and put popular government programs under attack, if and only if they have some leverage over Democrats to play along. The government shutdown fight in April was their first victory. The debt limit showdown was their piece de resistance.
Second, there are political pitfalls to this approach, particularly when it requires Republicans to publicly stake out specific positions. Cutting government spending might focus group well, but privatizing Medicare does not, as Republicans learned quite painfully earlier this year. This augurs for slashing spending in nebulous ways — capping discretionary spending, and spreading the cuts out across myriad federal programs; or promising to “find monies” in the budget to offset new expenses. Death by a thousand, invisible cuts.
Third, the right flank of the Republican party expects no less. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, Cantor’s predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) claimed Republicans had pared discretionary spending back enough that federal aid could be financed with new debt. He came under attack from members of his own party and quickly reversed himself. Looks like Cantor learned his lesson.
But it’s a difficult line to walk. Part of what made Republican victories in the shutdown and debt limit fights plausible was a logical veneer that doesn’t exist here. “We spend too much money on government programs,” Republicans basically argued, “so we won’t fund the government unless we impose discipline.” Another line was, in effect: “The national debt has skyrocketed, so we won’t allow the government to incur more of it unless steps are taken to hold down its growth.” When you drilled into these arguments, they crumbled, but at a glance they were quite plausible.
That’s not the case after a natural disaster. And if there’s a loud cry for federal aid once the damage is assessed, Cantor’s position will probably prove unsustainable.
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