In Hurricane Irene's aftermath, roads and bridges were washed away, people were stranded in their homes without running water or working utilities, and conservative Republican congressman Ron Paul's biggest concern was that FEMA is too big. He claimed the Federal Emergency Management Agency interferes with the private insurance market and local volunteers.
Is there a gene for this lack of compassion, or is it a disease that we're all susceptible to contracting? Paul's response was only the most extreme example of the callousness coming from congressional Republicans.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, reflected the views of his party on Fox News by supporting spending offsets for any financial help given communities recovering from Irene's devastation — backpeddling only after a firestorm of criticism. Never mind that this kind of disaster is just the unpredictable sort of expense that justifies an emergency appropriation. Or that Cantor's party and the congressman himself were happy to oblige President George W. Bush when he sought emergency supplemental appropriations to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — expenses that were far more predictable and totaled more than $1 trillion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service, without corresponding spending cuts.
So here are the Republican priorities: Add an estimated $680 billion to the budget deficit over 10 years by renewing the Bush tax cuts for taxpayers earning more than $250,000. But, absent cuts to federal programs, we can't provide recovery assistance from a natural disaster because it would add to the deficit.
Okay, you might say, the party of no-new-taxes is simply holding to its Grover Norquist pledge. Ah, but that ostensibly principled stance has a newly discovered exception: Only tax cuts that benefit the rich count.
This twist is evident in the GOP's response to President Barack Obama's proposal for a continuation of this year's payroll tax cut. Republican leader Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, famed for proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher program, called the tax cut "sugar-high economics." GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said he'd rather see the tax cut "on the employer side." And Cantor said through a spokesman that he "has never believed that this type of temporary tax relief is the best way to grow the economy."
This wobbliness is due to the disproportionate way payroll tax relief benefits working and middle-class people, and less so the wealthy, since the tax is only applied to the first $106,800 of a worker's annual salary. The tax holiday gave average Americans about $1,000 more in take-home pay, significant help for struggling families.
Compare the hesitation by congressional Republicans on payroll tax cuts to the other partisan tax fights waged recently. Last year they threatened to shut down the government to ensure that millionaires and billionaires kept their Bush-era tax cuts. This summer they refused to close special tax breaks for private jet owners and oil and gas companies, even if it meant the nation defaulted on its debt. But now the GOP isn't so sure it wants to continue tax relief for people who worry about affording their light bills and rent.
As Warren Buffett said, our nation's tax code serves the rich and needs a major overhaul. A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies found that a quarter of last year's 100 highest-paid corporate chief executives in the United States took home more in pay than their company paid in 2010 federal income taxes. Companies with profits of more than a billion dollars annually found ways around their income tax bill and richly rewarded their CEOs for the effort.
Why would any political party want to stand in defense of that kind of disloyalty to country, or protect such blatant greed over assisting a Vermont farmer with government help to rebuild after a storm? Ultimately, that is the choice: Corporate coffers or Vermont farmers. Private jets or infrastructure. Oil profits or education. It shouldn't be any contest.