As of this morning, at least 51 people, including 20 children, are dead in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, following one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. Rescue teams worked through the night, especially in the devastated city of Moore, and local officials fear the death toll may yet rise significantly. [Update: as of this afternoon, the death toll had been revised down to 24, not 51.]
Ordinarily, so soon after a disaster of this magnitude, discussions about political agendas and ideologies are put on hold, which is why it came as a surprise when one of Oklahoma’s U.S. senators staked out a far-right position on federal disaster relief just five hours after the storm hit.
The tornado damage near Oklahoma City is still being assessed and the death toll is expected to rise, but already Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says he will insist that any federal disaster aid be paid for with cuts elsewhere.
CQ Roll Call reporter Jennifer Scholtes wrote for CQ.com Monday evening that Coburn said he would “absolutely” demand offsets for any federal aid that Congress provides.
Coburn added, Scholtes wrote, that it is too early to guess at a damage toll but that he knows for certain he will fight to make sure disaster funding that the federal government contributes is paid for.
I’ve seen many note overnight that Coburn is at least consistent – there are plenty of politicians who’ve balked at disaster-relief funds when there’s a devastating storm, only to change their minds when their constituents are among the casualties. Coburn, however, has routinely questioned emergency funding for everyone, and apparently wants to apply the same standards to his own home state.
But while consistently is welcome, it doesn’t change the questions about unnecessary callousness.
For many years, federal disaster relief was effectively automatic – there was bipartisan support for quickly responding to American communities in their time of need. It was a reflection of who we are as a people – when disaster strikes, we’re there for the people in affected areas, regardless of politics.
But in recent years, many Republican lawmakers have decided to change the standards. Under the new approach, they’ll consider emergency resources, but only if Democrats agree to cut a comparable amount from the budget elsewhere. There’s no real economic rationale for this, but for much of the right, the ideological rationale is sufficient.
As for what the recovery price tag may be in Oklahoma, it’s far too soon to say. Ideally, it wouldn’t matter.