The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On hurricane relief votes and hypocrisy

Doc’s Beach House in Bonita Springs, Fla., right on the beach, was destroyed by Hurricane Ian. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

In life, there are coincidences, and then there’s how members of Congress vote.

As Florida surveys the damage done by Hurricane Ian and confronts how to recover from it, the New York Times on Thursday ran a piece noting that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was once quite skeptical of expansive federal disaster relief. Some of his first votes as a member of Congress in 2013 were against bills to help the Northeast recover from Hurricane Sandy. But then he voted for a 2017 bill that included relief funds for his home state amid Hurricane Irma. Now he’s in a position of not just asking the federal government for help, but also potentially to enact an expansive aid package of his own.

Plenty of others have gone a step further in such observations, pointing to DeSantis’s 2013 votes as a sign of hypocrisy. But while there have unquestionably been some thoroughly convenient flip-flops on these kinds of votes over the last decade-plus, it’s worth taking in the fuller context and what it says about the shifting and malleable politics of disaster relief on the right.

The GOP movement to question spending on disaster relief began to pick up amid the debate over Hurricane Katrina aid in 2005. Only 11 House Republicans voted against the $50 billion-plus package, but others cautioned that they’d be drawing a harder line moving forward, particularly if the spending wasn’t offset with cuts elsewhere.

“Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren,” said future vice president Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana.

After the tea party movement took hold around 2010, members began to hold that line. A $9.7 billion flood relief bill for Hurricane Sandy was considered noncontroversial, even passing by voice vote in the Senate. But 67 House Republicans voted against it, including DeSantis.

Then came a larger, $50 billion Sandy bill. Fully 36 Senate Republicans voted against it, as did 179 House Republicans — the vast majority of GOP contingents in both chambers (again including DeSantis). They objected not just because the spending wasn’t offset, but because they viewed it as too large and not sufficiently targeted in scope or timing to truly constitute hurricane relief.

By the time 2017 rolled around, though, DeSantis wasn’t the only one who didn’t seem to be holding as hard a line. Despite the bill lacking such spending offsets, the GOP “no” votes on a $36.5 billion aid bill for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria numbered only 17 in the Senate and 69 in the House.

Such votes show how malleable such principled stands can be, depending on where disaster strikes.

For instance, only three of 18 House Republicans from Florida voted for the larger Sandy bill, but every one of them voted for the 2017 bill that included aid for their home state.

Likewise, of the 49 House GOP “yes” votes on the larger Sandy bill, nearly half came from states that were directly affected, including every Republican from New York and New Jersey.

One of those New Jersey Republicans was Rep. Scott Garrett, who actually introduced the smaller Sandy bill. Just eight years before, he had been one of those 11 Republicans who voted against the Katrina package.

If you comb through all of these votes, you’ll notice that, the larger Sandy bill aside, lawmakers who come from states that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes (i.e. along the Gulf Coast) are generally less likely to be among the hard-liners — perhaps owing to the fact that they know their states could be next in line.

That’s where DeSantis’s votes do stand out. On the first Sandy bill, he was one of just two Florida Republicans to vote no, and very few members from the Gulf Coast joined them.

It’s a stand that served notice of his intent to legislate as a tea party conservative; he cast the vote just a day after being sworn in to Congress. But it was also something that a politician in his position might have anticipated posing problems down the line. It became an issue in his 2018 campaign for governor when, as the Times noted, GOP primary opponent Adam Putnam sought to spotlight it. Putnam’s campaign said that families shouldn’t have to worry about whether DeSantis would deliver in a time of disaster.

DeSantis emphasized even at the time that he didn’t oppose all federal disaster aid. In 2013, he said he opposed what he called a “put it on the credit card mentality” — a claim in line with tea party warnings about the lack of spending offsets. But as noted, the 2017 bill he voted for lacked such offsets.

In further comments, DeSantis also argued that the Sandy bill spent too excessively — on things that were unrelated to the storm (for this claim, he cited how not all of the money was spent immediately) — and that it effectively rewarded New York for not sufficiently insuring its buildings.

“So, in that situation, we want to help people, I think, as the last line of defense, but you don’t want to basically reward them for not doing the responsible thing,” he said. “So I think a lot of people who have looked at it have acknowledged that there was more spending in it than what needed to be done, and it was not an appropriate vehicle, with excessive spending and extraneous money.”

Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler looked at these kinds of claims in 2017, after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) defended his vote against the package by saying it was two-thirds pork. (His office later said he had misspoken and was referring to how slowly the money would be spent.) Kessler cited a detailed congressional Research Service report and concluded that “it’s clear that virtually all of it was related to the damage caused by Sandy.”

DeSantis and his fellow critics pointed to spending on things like the Smithsonian and Head Start, but each was impacted by Sandy, and the spending was storm-related. They pointed to spending on fisheries, but it was a relatively small line item, and the fisheries, too, were impacted by declared disasters — Sandy and others.

They also pointed out that not all of $16 billion spent on an account that funds Community Development Block Grants went to areas impacted by Sandy. But 80 percent of it did, while the rest of the funds went to areas affected by other disasters.

As for the pace of the spending, which both Cruz and DeSantis raised, the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that only 30 percent of the money would be spent by a year later and that about one-quarter would not be spent for at least five years. But the CBO put out a report noting that, while that kind of pace “looks surprisingly slow to some observers,” it “simply reflected historical patterns for the expenditure of disaster relief funds.”

In the end, the votes and the rhetoric surrounding disaster relief reflect the rise and decline of the tea party movement. Everyone was quite keen to build up their deficit-hawk bona fides in the early 2010s, and what better way to send that message than holding the line against disaster relief that you cast as wasteful?

DeSantis took that further than many others in his party, as one of 67 to vote against the smaller Sandy bill. But by 2017, even when most of his fellow hard-liners still weren’t convinced that the latest disaster relief bill was worth their vote — and a very similar number (69) voted no — DeSantis was suddenly on the other side.

As he could be on a future, Ian-related relief bill. Both he and President Biden have played up the need for a united, bipartisan front, and it’s possible DeSantis could help convert some of his fellow former hard-liners to support a bill — especially given that they might feel invested in furthering DeSantis’s political prospects as the potential leader of the national GOP ticket in 2024. But what if that bill is big and isn’t offset — and if Florida’s interest isn’t viewed, by some, as necessarily the nation’s interest?