When the edge of Hurricane Isaac brushes Tampa Bay today, the Republicans gathered here for the national convention will be ready—events have been canceled, speakers reshuffled and the convention staff “is working around-the-clock to ensure the delegations housed in storm-impacted areas have alternative housing if needed.”
This may not have been necessary, as it’s been clear for more than twenty-four hours that the storm is shifting away from the area; blue patches of sky were even visible over the city this morning. But the party is clearly sensitive to evocations of Hurricane Katrina, which top Bush advisers viewed as “the final nail in the coffin” for the Bush-era GOP after the administration failed to respond properly. (“Ghost of Katrina hangs heavy as Romney readies for convention,” reads a headline in today’s Washington Post.) So Republicans are willing to sacrifice their carefully planned itinerary in the name of appearing responsive and sensitive to the impact of major storms.
This, to be clear, is purely optical. Since assuming control of the House, Republicans have consistently played dangerous politics with disaster relief funds and slashed the budgets of storm monitoring agencies, thereby executing the same small-government-at-all-costs mentality that led to widespread destruction in New Orleans. They may go to great lengths to assure the safety of party delegates in Tampa Bay, but they have not shown the same compassion for storm victims in the rest of the country.
When the GOP nominates Paul Ryan as its vice-presidential candidate on Wednesday night, they will be putting a man who proposed steep reductions to disaster relief funds in his most recent budget—restrictions so radical that GOP appropriators in the House disobey them. Ryan proposed that Congress adhere to the debt-ceiling limitations, and not spend over them when appropriating disaster relief, but instead make cuts elsewhere to pay for them. This is the same “morally reprehensible” approach to disaster relief funding taken by House Republican leaders last summer: even as Hurricane Irene bored down on the eastern seaboard, Congressional Republicans threatened to withhold disaster relief funds if offsetting cuts were not made elsewhere in the federal budget. Holding federal disaster relief hostage to political food-fights was a truly unprecedented move.
Republicans have also continued to starve the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the money it needs to respond to natural disasters. It held FEMA hostage to the same budget battles last summer, withholding money until cuts were made elsewhere. This brought the agency literally to the brink of bankruptcy, and it was even forced to temporarily suspend relief efforts in Missouri and elsewhere last summer as the dispute raged on in Congress.
Federal agencies that monitor storms have also been targeted. The funding resolution passed by Republicans in early 2011 specifically cut funding for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association by $454 million from the president’s request. The National Weather Service, part of NOAA, saw a $126 million reduction.
Even at the state level, the party hasn’t been kind to funding victims of natural disasters. Under Republican Governor Rick Scott’s most recent budget, “Florida may not have enough money to pay off hurricane insurance claims if a big storm hits this year.”
The Progresssive Change Campaign Committee is running a web advertising campaign today in Florida, asking people to hold the GOP accountable for playing politics with disaster relief. Congregants to the convention will surely decry the nasty federal government countless times this week—but would they really rather there be a feeble National Weather Service to monitor storms, or an underfunded an agency like FEMA to help respond? Because that’s what many of the people up on stage are fighting for.