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After Kentucky devastation, critics seize on Rand Paul’s record opposing disaster bills

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote to President Biden following tornadoes in Kentucky asking for disaster relief funds, despite his long history of voting against it. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)
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Dawn had barely broken over Western Kentucky on Saturday morning, fully revealing the jaw-dropping devastation from a cluster of tornadoes that tore across the commonwealth and neighboring states, when Sen. Rand Paul wrote to President Biden and requested immediate federal assistance.

Paul (R-Ky.) asked Biden to “move expeditiously to approve the appropriate resources for our state,” citing the “loss of life and severe property damage.” Among the communities affected was Bowling Green, where at least 15 people died when twisters landed just miles from Paul’s home. Dozens more lost their lives elsewhere in the state.

The message did not go unheeded. Following the request from Paul and from the seven other members of the state’s congressional delegation, Biden declared a federal disaster the next day — making Kentucky eligible for the full range of emergency government assistance.

There's almost nothing left standing in the small community of Dawson Springs, Ky. after it was hit by a tornado on Dec. 10. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

But it also conjured memories of Paul’s own lengthy history of opposing congressional legislation written to address past disasters, including bills passed following hurricanes Sandy, Harvey and Maria directing billions of dollars of assistance to stricken Americans.

Liberal social media users flooded platforms with accusations of brazen hypocrisy and surfaced clips of Paul arguing against the bipartisan aid bills.

“RT IF YOU THINK THAT RAND PAUL IS A HYPOCRITE,” Occupy Democrats, a liberal group, wrote on Twitter, and more than 12,000 indeed retweeted the sentiment to their followers.

“We should do all we can to help our Kentucky neighbors. God be with them — they are hurting,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) wrote. “But do not for one second forget that [Paul] has voted against helping most Americans most times they’re in need.”

Interviewed Tuesday about the criticism, Paul lashed out at his critics and said they were distorting his record, which includes not only opposition to disaster-specific aid bills, but opposition to most every government spending bill that the Senate has taken up since 2011, when he was sworn in.

“We’re concerned with burying our dead and mourning those who have died right now,” he said. “I think it’s sad that people on the left who have an agenda in the midst of people dying can’t come together to try to help people in their time of need but instead want to score cheap political points, most of which is untrue.”

Paul, who has donated $100,000 from his campaign to the relief effort, said he has routinely requested emergency aid for his state when warranted and that he has “never been opposed to the program, ever.” What he has been opposed to, he said, is refilling disaster aid accounts with borrowed money rather than offsetting the disaster aid with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

“That’s different than saying, ‘Oh, he now wants it because it’s in his state and he never wanted it [before],’ ” he said. “I’ve never opposed anybody’s disaster relief in any other state. I’ve just asked that it be paid for.”

That brand of philosophical, libertarian-tinged conservatism has been Paul’s hallmark during his decade in the Senate, and his willingness to single-handedly stand in the way of federal spending legislation — even bills backed by the bulk of his fellow Republicans — has made him a thorn in the side of not only Democrats but his fellow Republican senator from Kentucky, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Paul has embraced disaster spending bills, which are frequently passed outside the normal appropriations process, as platforms for his hard-line fiscal views, and his sharp rhetoric has made it easy for his online critics to find fodder for their hypocrisy charges.

When the Senate took up a bill in 2017 that would send $36 billion to aid victims of hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas, 17 Republicans ultimately voted against it for fiscal reasons. But only Paul offered a fiery floor speech as he sought to offset the aid by cutting foreign aid to Pakistan.

“You will find often it is easy to be compassionate with somebody else’s money, but it is not only that,” he said. “It is not only compassion with someone else’s money, it is compassion with money that doesn’t even exist, money that is borrowed.”

In July, a fellow Republican, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (La.), came to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to pass this Gulf Coast Hurricane Aid Act, which would have provided $1.1 billion in federal aid for those affected by hurricanes Laura and Delta.

Kennedy’s bill even had a fiscal offset — using some of the $80 billion in proceeds from a 2020 radio spectrum auction. But Paul objected nonetheless.

“Everybody wants something, and somebody says, ‘Oh, there’s money in the treasury! Guess what? There’s not. There’s a big hole. A big, black hole in the treasury, $28 trillion worth.”

When spectrum is sold, he said, “we should do it to pay down the deficit — we shouldn’t do it to expand government further.”

Paul is not the only Kentuckian who has a spotty record on disaster aid. Besides Paul, three GOP House members — Reps. Garland “Andy” Barr, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie — opposed a 2013 bill to address the East Coast megastorm Sandy. Barr and Massie, as well as Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), opposed a 2019 bill providing $17 billion in disaster aid.

It appears unlikely — for now, anyway — that Paul and his fiscally conservative statesmen will be forced to take a vote on delivering federal dollars to their own devastated constituents.

Congressional aides said it was too early to tell definitively, but key federal emergency response accounts, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, appeared to be well-positioned to meet the needs in Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee.

A FEMA report issued earlier this month found that the main fund had at least $10 billion available to respond to new disasters. And, historically, tornado outbreaks have required relatively small expenditures, especially compared with hurricanes, which tend to affect dense urban areas.

The last tornado outbreak of a similar scale, in the spring of 2011, cost taxpayers roughly $1.5 billion, according to FEMA reports. Sandy, by comparison, drained $22 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund, plus tens of billions of dollars more in flood insurance claims and other losses.

Eventually, however, the coffers will have to be replenished. And while online critics did not hold back in their fury toward Paul, his Senate colleagues were more measured, assuring tornado victims in Kentucky and elsewhere that Congress would act if needed.

“I have always voted for disaster aid, and we shouldn’t hold it against disaster victims when their politicians are not doing their job,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.