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Jim Inhofe and the “reverse NIMBY” phenomenon

When the Senate considered a bill to provide billions in relief funds for Hurricane Sandy late last year, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) railed against it, insisting that "when a disaster occurs in America and emotions are high, everyone wants to pour money on it" and likened the bill to a slush fund.

Tuesday morning, in the wake of a massive tornado that destroyed the town of Moore, Oklahoma and left dozens dead, Inhofe sought to contrast what happened in his home state with what had happened in New Jersey during Sandy.

"Let's look at that," Inhofe said on MSNBC regarding Sandy and his vote against the relief package. "They were getting things -- for instance, that was supposed to be in New Jersey. They had things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there. They were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C."

While Inhofe has been the only member of congress -- at least that we have seen/heard -- to voice the "it's different" sentiment in the wake of the Oklahoma tornado, that sentiment which he expressed is not new.

Witness the fight over Sandy funding last fall.

Inhofe was one of 36 Republicans in the Senate to vote against the relief package for Hurricane Sandy.  His colleague -- Sen. Tom Coburn -- also voted against the legislation due to the lack of budgetary offsets included in it. (Coburn, to his credit, has said offsets need to be part of any package related to relief funds for Oklahoma.) Sixty seven Republicans -- including two of Oklahoma's five Republicans Congressmen -- also voted against Sandy funding.)

The argument put forward by the Republicans who voted "no" -- no Democrats in the House or Senate voted against the funding -- was that the government had no way of knowing exactly how much money was actually needed and that, inevitably, some would be wasted on things that had nothing to do with recovery in the U.S..

That attitude enraged Republicans in the affected areas. New Jersey Chris Christie hammered House Republicans for not allowing the relief funding vote at the end of the 112th Congress, calling it "disappointing and disgusting." New York Rep. Pete King (R) urged Republican donors to withhold contributions to congressional Republicans.

The problem is this. Human nature dictates that things that directly impact us and the people we know and love seem like they are different in kind from things that don't have that same impact. Politicians, who contrary to some naysayers are actually human, fall into that same trap.  It's sort of a reverse NIMBY -- Not In My Back Yard -- phenomenon. As in: If it happens in my backyard, it matters more because, well, it's my backyard.

That mentality explains why Inhofe said Tuesday that "everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won't happen in Oklahoma."

Whether or not Inhofe is proven right remains to be seen as Congress in the coming days hashes out how best (and how much) to help the people of Moore. But, tragedy is tragedy -- whether or not you know the people involved. We would all do well to remember that.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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