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Tom Baxter

Bug-splat politics and the national discussion on disaster relief reform

By Tom Baxter

It’s only fitting the first annual Lovebug Award for Congressional Cooperation should go to the representative of a Gulf Coast district familiar with those pesky winged insects which show up a couple of times a year to sacrifice themselves on the windshields of automobiles.

Rep. Steven Palazzo of Biloxi was one of 67 Republicans who voted Friday against a $9.7 billion relief bill for the part of the country hit by Superstorm Sandy. He was joined by five members of the Georgia delegation – Paul Broun, Doug Collins, Tom Graves, Tom Price and Rob Woodall – as well as representatives from several other states which have been recent recipients of federal disaster aid. But the prize for sheer glass-house, pot-call-the kettle-black brass has to go to Palazzo, who represents the district where Hurricane Katrina hit land, in the heart of a region where rent-seeking  isn’t a dusty economic term but a way of life.

“Tell our national leaders, don’t send more inspectors,” Palazzo said in 2005 when he was a Biloxi Housing Authority official pushing for the immediate release of $38.5 million in Katrina disaster funds. “We know what’s damaged and how to fix it. Send us money so we can put families back together and do our part to rebuild our community.”

After his vote against the Sandy relief bill Friday, however, Palazzo’s office issued a statement saying he supports the Sandy relief money with the stipulation that it be offset by spending cuts.

“He also hopes we will be able to have a much-needed national discussion on disaster relief reform in the coming days,” a spokeswoman said.

It’s important to distinguish the bill voted on Friday, which raised the amount the National Flood Insurance program can borrow to pay out immediate claims from the disaster, from the $60.4 billion relief bill Congress will vote on next week, a classic Christmas tree bill with a lot of pork, about which more in a moment.

All 67 of those who voted against it knew the measure was going to pass, and knew also that their vote would provoke outrage in places far from their districts (Former Republican Sen. Al D’Amato denounced the 67 as “a bunch of jackasses,” and the New York Daily News printed their names and office telephone numbers, which must have made for a lively Monday morning.).

But this was bug-splat politics, as the title of our new award indicates. In exchange for outrage over a meaningless vote, the naysayers got cred from the Club for Growth and Tea Party groups which also opposed the relief bill and are likely to grade the vote on the $9.7 billion equal to the vote next week on the real pork. Their vote may not have been enlightened, but for most it made sense. It was the easy path for Collins, just taking office on the heels of a challenge from a Tea Party candidate, and the smart thing for Price, trying to nail down the renegade vote for any future attempt to move up in leadership.

Note, however, that Rep. Jack Kingston, whose Georgia district resembles Palazzo’s in many ways and who has been no stranger to in-your-face votes, did not bite on this one. Perhaps Palazzo might have thought twice too, if he could have seen the comment stream on his Facebook site with hundreds of expressions of outrage, including much shame and no small measure of apprehension from within his district. Vengeful Northeastern lawmakers, challenged to find spending offsets for the emergency aid, could have a field day with Palazzo’s district, which includes the Stennis Space Center, Ingalls Shipyard and several other offset-ready federal installations.

What’s true in particular about the Gulf Coast is true about the South in general. If federal disaster relief is going to become a tug-of-war over pork barrel spending, we inevitably come out on the short end, because we have more than our share of disaster and pork.

Take, for instance, the non-Sandy related spending in the $60.4 billion package which comes up next week. I haven’t seen a regional breakdown, but it sure looks as though the bulk of it is headed South, primarily in the form of further recovery aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, with kisses for NASCAR and the sugar industry thrown in.

To control the deficit, there has to be a discussion about how to make relief bills more targeted, and whether the Federal Flood Insurance program can continue in its present form, in a time of climate change. But a discussion which begins with a regional schism among Republicans isn’t going anywhere.

“To further explain my vote…” Palazzo wrote on his Facebook page as the protests mounted. “Take for example a person falls through the ice and is drowning. No (responsible?) person jumps right in to help them and I say that from being a lifeguard and a US Marine, but they assess the situation first. The responsible thing is you first look around for a rope, branch or anything to throw to them. You’d call out for help, text a friend to send help and so on. And if no one comes or you can’t find anything then you do whatever is necessary and that is to jump into the frigid icy waters and do all that you can to save the person who is drowning.”

Not only is it odd for a congressman from Biloxi to use falling through ice as a metaphor, but strange he didn’t realize that he was the one in the water.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


1 Comment

  1. JWK January 8, 2013 11:09 am

    Kingston and his Georgia Republican friends are probably watching that 600 million pounds of pork that will be used to dredge the Savannah River cleverly disguised as a project of “national significance” rather than a state economic development issue. Governor Deal managed to keep the “unwashed” Georgia congressional masses in line just long enough for the public announcement of the award to be made. Methinks they should keep their mouths shut until the check is in hand. Broun and Price just aren’t smart enough to realize that though.Report


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