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A Times Editorial

Playing politics with disaster relief

Even with a deal Monday that seems to have averted a federal government shutdown, Americans should be disgusted by the political games Congress played over disaster relief. Conservative Republicans held up more money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency over demands that additional financial assistance be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Scoring points apparently meant more to the tea party crowd than aiding fellow Americans hit hard by natural disasters. Using disaster victims as pawns in a shakedown disguised as political principle does not reflect the nation's priorities or its compassion for those who need help.

This nation has a long history of responding quickly to those hit by natural calamity for a simple reason: Storms, fires and tornadoes can sweep away lives and livelihoods in a moment, leaving victims without a home, clothes, income or any way to get around. FEMA provides money for temporary housing, home repairs, personal property and other essentials. The assistance is a lifeline that gets people and entire communities back on their feet. But speed and order are vital to relief operations. The budgetary standoff only created new anxieties and threatened the working relationship between the federal government and its state and local partners.

FEMA estimates it has $114 million remaining in its disaster relief account, enough to operate until Thursday. A budget deal fell apart Friday after Republicans insisted that aid to FEMA be cut in half, to about $3.7 billion, in a package that also required $1.6 billion in other budget cuts. The move was another attempt to hang federal spending around the Democrats' necks in the run-up to the 2012 elections, even though disaster aid has always a bipartisan priority. Senators reached a tentative compromise late Monday that would avert a government shutdown and, along with it, a temporary halt to disaster relief operations.

There is only so much comfort the nation can offer to those who find themselves through no fault of their own picking through the rubble. Providing fellow citizens with a safe place to sleep, clean water and other basics should not be held hostage to a political circus. With winter around the corner, disaster victims will have to scramble. Congress should not make the rebuilding process even harder or more degrading by shortchanging the nations's response capability. Congress needs to give FEMA the money it needs. And Republicans should realize that requiring offsets for every unforeseen emergency is not only bad economics but bad politics.

Playing politics with disaster relief 09/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 11:29pm]
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