As Tri-State Rebuilds Post-Irene, Politics of Disaster Relief Come Into Focus

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Connecticut Lieutenant Governor, Nancy Wyman, discussed the Connecticut recovery effort post Hurricane Irene; U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ 8th) who serves on House Budget and Ways and Means Committees, updated the situation in New Jersey; Nan Hayworth, U.S Representative (R-NY-19), surveyed the flood damage around New York.

Recovery in Connecticut

Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman said that to her knowledge about 130 Connecticut homes had been destroyed by Hurricane Irene. However, it's likely that more haven't been discovered—or reported. With FEMA teams on the ground surveying damage, she said it was important that they get the most accurate estimate possible for how much cleanup is going to cost the state, and that means every private citizen should report their losses to the state.

Our problem is that a lot of people haven't called [the damages] in. We've asked people to call 211 and tell us about damages that they have, even if they have insurance, because we need that information in order to apply for federal disaster recovery funds.

Playing politics with relief

Leave no disaster un-politicized. As states like Connecticut have begun to tally their rebuilding bills, it has dawned on Washington that the federal government will have to spend money—the opposite of what the House majority has prescribed since last November.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has recommended that all spending on FEMA and disaster relief should be offset by further cuts in spending from other areas of government. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat who's state was also hit hard by Irene, called Cantor's proposal insane and unprecedented.

We've never done this, whether for tornadoes, forest fires, fires out in the West, all the help we sent over to Joplin in their dire need, or the major storms in Florida. We've always risen to the occasion.

Right now FEMA is being suffocated by this stupid idea that the more you cut will solve our problems. We're cutting and losing jobs. Our people need help immediately. They don't want to hear a debate between Democrats and Republicans about when should we cut and when shouldn't we.

Republicans would argue that citizens don't get value for the dollar they give to the government; that while disaster relief is a worthwhile expenditure, we run plenty of unnecessary outlays that we could shrink in order to fund the necessary. Asked how he would respond to that point, Pascrell cited stagnant unemployment coupled with austerity-induced contractions in the public sector labor force.

If we continue to put our heads in the sand and don't recognize that that's part of the equation as well, we're never going to address this...We lose more of these people, they go on unemployment—where do you think the money's coming from to pay their unemployment checks? What are you going to say? Cops and firemen get laid off; what are they, lazy, not going to be looking for other jobs?

Hayworth responds

And so a natural disaster has forced yet another conversation about spending and the proper role of government. But New York Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican, wanted to be clear with listeners in affected areas that they were going to get the help they needed.

The people who need FEMA assistance are going to get it, no question about it. That's not something that should play on their minds in the midst of this disaster.

While Hayworth assured her constituents that the government wouldn't cut corners, she said it would have to cut spending in other places to make ends meet. When Brian Lehrer asked which programs she'd look to for savings, Hayworth punted to the upcoming deficit reduction "Super Congress," which Congress already punted to earlier this summer.

They have to find $1.2 to $1.5 trillion dollars of spending opportunities—cuts—most of which have been identified in non-military discretionary spending, and there are probably some large areas of the federal budget in that segment that are going to be looked at very carefully.

Hayworth eventually singled out the Department of Energy and the Department of Education as prime targets for savings.

Wait, how bad is the economy?

Nan Hayworth seemed to suggest that as much as we need relief from natural disasters, we also need relief from economic ones; the only solution is austerity. We shouldn't lose sight of that when new numbers show just how bad the economy has gotten, she said.

Look at the August jobs report: no jobs created for the first time since 1945 when they started doing these stats. No jobs created in this economy.

However, this is not quite true. Net job growth was zero, but there were thousands of jobs created in the private sector; those gains were offset by thousands of layoffs in the public sector—a result, according to Rep. Bill Pascrell, of spending cuts. It is also not the worst showing for this statistic since 1945; the net job growth was zero just 11 months ago, and during the height of the financial panic job growth was negative.

Hayworth made another inaccurate claim later when she lamented the growth of federal spending.

We have a federal government spending at a rate approaching 25 percent of GDP. That's unprecedented in peacetime.

Hayworth may have forgotten that we haven't been "in peacetime" for about a decade.