The American people were horrified watching coverage of the devastation caused by the massive tornado that struck Moore, Okla., on Monday. And as in all such episodes, the primary response is a desire to help those affected by this tragedy.
That is a healthy and welcome reaction, one that speaks well of our society. We can only hope it is not derailed by politics. But the fight over disaster relief began almost as soon as the storm passed.
Monday evening, President Barack Obama signed a major disaster declaration. He also called Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, the area’s congressman. He offered his condolences and promised to do whatever was needed to help Oklahoma in its recovery efforts, saying the people affected “will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel it with you.”
The president acted appropriately. But what disaster aid means is money. And while the president can direct considerable resources, with the kind of sums probably involved, in the end, that likely means congressional action. That could be problematic.
In political terms, Oklahoma is bright red. Its governor, both U.S. senators and four of its five congressmen are Republicans. The question is whether the blue states of New York and New Jersey will remember that, just a few months ago, both of Oklahoma’s senators and three of its House members voted against the bill funding relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that trashed so much of those states’ coastal areas last year.
It is doubtful that residents of those states would be so vengeful, but then again, they already have encouragement. Oklahoma’s junior senator, Republican Tom Coburn, has already all but come out against aid for his own state. He told CQ Roll Call that he would “absolutely” insist that any federal aid for Oklahoma be offset by cuts to other parts of the federal budget. That is consistent with his vote against Hurricane Sandy relief, but it is hard to imagine many residents of the Jersey shore see the virtue of such consistency.
The key to this might well be Cole, the Republican congressman whose home is in Moore, just yards from the worst-hit parts of town. He voted for the Sandy relief bill and has said he did so in part because he understands his own state’s history with tornadoes. Moore itself suffered greatly from a tornado just 14 years ago.
Cole is an interesting person. A member of the Chickasaw Nation, he is now the only Native American in Congress. He also holds a doctorate in British history. And he has a reputation of being able to bridge the differences between his party’s factions. That might be the beginning.
Oklahoma’s senior senator, James Inhofe, is already backing off from comparisons of his “no” vote on Sandy relief and aid for tornado victims. He told MSNBC on Tuesday they are “totally different,” because the Sandy bill was riddled with pork. “That,” he said, “won’t happen in Oklahoma.”
Perhaps not. But that is beside the point.
Oklahoma should get federal disaster aid – and lawmakers from New Jersey should vote for it – not on the basis of politics or ideology, but because its people are hurting, they are Americans and we are all in this together.
After all, next time it might not be an Atlantic storm or a tornado in the Plains. It could just as easily be a flood or a forest fire in Colorado.
For those who want to help more directly, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet recommend texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.