While parts of Texas are still submerged from the historic flooding wrought by Hurricane Harvey, four members of Congress who represent the state voted against sending it billions in federal disaster aid.
GOP Reps. Joe Barton, Jeb Hensarling, Sam Johnson and Mac Thornberry all voted no on a $15.25 billion aid package Friday that is on its way to President Trump's desk. Much of that money will boost federal emergency responders and help small businesses and homeowners rebuild. Some of it could go to victims of Hurricane Irma, which is barreling toward Florida this weekend.
These lawmakers say they didn't like what the Harvey aid was packaged with: a three-month lift of the debt ceiling to let the U.S. Treasury borrow more money and a short-term budget that basically extends last year's budget for another three months. As usual in Washington, the hang-up sits at the nexus of money and making a political statement about money.
The four Texas lawmakers who voted no all scrambled to make clear they support the government helping their state recover from rainfall totals so unprecedented that weather forecasters had to invent a new color for their maps. Earlier in the week, the entire Texas delegation voted for an $8 billion package for Harvey victims. After Trump made a deal with Democrats on the debt ceiling and budget, that original package died in the Senate, which instead passed a measure with the additional provisions. The House did the same Friday. Estimates for Harvey cleanup go as high as $150 billion.
The members who opposed the bill had the luxury of being able to prioritize their fiscal conservatism on this vote. None of the Texans who voted no represents a coastal area, and they could safely assume their votes wouldn't actually put the aid package in danger. It easily passed the House 316-90.
In other words, their no votes would take some explaining, but they wouldn't change the outcome.
Friday's vote pushes directly on the stress point of being a conservative when your party is in charge of governing. Generally speaking, conservatives want to cut federal spending, not increase it. Even in an emergency, many believe the government can't just cut checks willy-nilly. It's usually easier to stick to that principle when the emergency doesn't happen in your state.
“I am not against voting for relief programs to help hurricane victims, but I am against raising the public debt ceiling without a plan to reduce deficits in the short term, and eliminate them in the long term,” Barton said in a statement after the vote. “The money we vote to spend today will have to be paid back by our children and grandchildren.”
“Disaster assistance should be considered on its own — not to advance another agenda,” said Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement. He later told reporters that failing to pass a full budget also puts people in danger, maybe more so than a hurricane.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has become a symbol for the hard choice Republicans must make between helping people they serve recover from an expensive disaster and sticking to their financially conservative principles. Cruz, along with nearly the entire Texas Republican delegation, voted against Hurricane Sandy aid. He misleadingly claimed it was full of unrelated spending. But on Thursday, he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) swallowed their concerns about what got tacked onto the aid package for their state and vote for it.
“I wish that had not been done,” Cruz told reporters of tying the debt ceiling and a short-term budget to Harvey aid. “And as result, an awful lot of members will vote against it.”
Same with Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who represents Corpus Christi, where the storm made landfall. He voted against Sandy aid, but before Friday's Harvey vote, he appealed directly to his colleagues to vote yes. As the Dallas Morning News reported, Farenthold said:
“We’re here today to tell those folks in Florida, those folks in Texas and those who face disasters all over this country that this, this Congress has your back,” later adding: “Unfortunately, this has turned a little political, and it doesn’t need to be. This is about people helping people, Americans helping Americans.”
What Texan Republicans are living is an inconvenient fact of life and politics: It's much easier to hold your principles in theory than in reality. Or, when you know your no vote won't change reality.