Delaying flood relief is plain dumb politics ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 28, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON

We may be missing something here, but the decision by House Republicans -- along with perhaps 40 fellow-traveler Democrats -- to drag out the disaster aid for the victims of the Midwest floods is positively bizarre politics.

As Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, using great restraint, put it, "sometimes Washington is pretty detached" from what is going on in the rest of the country.

This wasn't just detached, it was out of the real world. For almost a month now, the biggest story in the country has been the record floods that have created havoc to families, farms and businesses. And the response from these House members has been the most hypocritical politics -- an insistence they couldn't vote for the $3 billion in disaster relief until the administration specified where savings would be made elsewhere to avoid any impact on the deficit.

The Republican design, obviously shared by some of those conservative Democrats, was to further "expose" President Clinton as another "tax and spend" Democrat because he promised the money without finding some widows and orphans to rob as an offset. But many of those saviors of the republic have spent most of the last 12 years -- remember Reaganomics? -- voting the federal deficit up to its current gaudy heights. Getting religion when the issue is emergency help for innocent victims of disaster is a little strange at best.

For one thing, there are many occasions for Congress to consider how federal programs should be financed, occasions that don't coincide with fresh reports of hardship to tens of thousands of people every day. "It's not a time to be making the policy about how they're going to handle disaster aid," said Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri, a Democrat. "They need to get it flowing."

If there is one overriding truth about American politics today, it is that the agenda is set by the television networks in their news programs. The stories they feature night after night are the ones that evoke demands from the public for action. That was true in the case of starvation in Somalia. It has been equally true in the horror of Bosnia, even though there has been no consequent action. And it is just as true in the case of those floods.

But members of the House -- or at least many of them -- apparently pay no attention to what's on the evening news. And that, of course, is why they have earned such a reputation among their constituents for arrogance and insensitivity -- a reputation that those who dragged their heels on disaster relief fully merit.

As a practical matter, this political game of trying to make Clinton look even worse probably isn't important. Even if cuts were ordered in spending elsewhere, the relief program would have to be funded with short-term borrowing at the moment. And the truth is that in the end everybody knows that the federal government is not going to turn its back on a disaster of these dimensions. The $3 billion now on its way through the process will be only a down payment on the eventual total, no matter how many congressmen hold their breath.

There is another side to the equation that should appeal to these champions of deficit reduction. One of the strong arguments for quick action on emergency relief is that the sooner people get back on their feet and businesses restore their jobs, the sooner the revenues start flowing again. This is not a program for chronic deadbeats but one for the hard core of the taxpaying American work force.

No one would argue that Republicans -- or conservative Democrats, for that matter -- should feel obliged to go along with Clinton programs just to break the gridlock made so notorious by Ross Perot and his supporters last year. If the Republicans want to stall the national service plan because they object to its merits, they are entitled. The same is true of the economic program and the nomination of Joycelyn Elders to be surgeon general. The president's complaints on gridlock are obviously undermined by the fact his party controls both houses of Congress.

But trying to score political points by delaying flood relief is just plain dumb politics because it confirms what so many Americans believe: that the members of Congress are out of touch with the people.

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