By Mike Lillis - 08/31/11 10:50 AM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) insistence that federal disaster aid be offset elsewhere in the budget runs directly counter to his position in the past when the money went to help his district.
In the summer of 2004, after Tropical Storm Gaston slammed into Richmond, Cantor was on the front lines of efforts to secure millions of dollars in federal assistance to clean the wreckage and repair damaged infrastructure. Although the funding was not offset, Cantor cheered its arrival.
That episode is raising eyebrows this week, after Cantor told Fox News that disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Irene should not be funded with borrowed money. Instead, Cantor said Monday, all federal assistance should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“Yes, we are going to find the money. We are just going to have to make sure there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so,” Cantor told Fox. “Just like any family would operate when it’s struck with disaster, it finds the money to take care of a sick loved one or what have you, and then goes without trying to buy a new car or [putting] an addition onto the house.”
Cantor is in an awkward position when it comes to disaster aid. Twice in the last week his district was struck by natural disasters — once by the hurricane and once by an earthquake — and his state’s Republican governor has said deficit concerns should not be a factor in the response to the disaster.
Yet Cantor is also the leader of a House GOP majority focused on reducing government spending, and disaster relief that is not offset with other spending cuts threatens to eat away at the savings Republicans have carved from the budget.
This has left Cantor straddling between his national role as a popular Tea Party conservative — focused on spending cuts and balanced budgets — and his less-publicized duties as a representative of Virginia.
When Gaston hit Richmond in August 2004, it dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of the city, killing eight people and leaving tens of millions of dollars of damage in its wake.
In a letter to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Cantor requested “immediate action” from Washington.
“Time is of the essence,” Cantor wrote, “and it is important to start working on this matter so my constituents can receive help in this time of need.”
The federal assistance to Richmond after Gaston ultimately totaled nearly $20 million, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. There was no mention of deficit-spending concerns.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said Tuesday that the nation’s fiscal environment was different in 2004, when the federal debt was less than $7.4 trillion — roughly half today’s figure.
But budget conservatives — as well as many Democrats — have charged Republicans with hypocrisy for focusing on deficit reduction now after years of deficit spending themselves. Democrats note that GOP leaders chose not to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or Medicare’s prescription drug benefit — all Bush-era programs that helped turn a projected budget surplus at the end of the Clinton administration into trillions of dollars of debt.
Dayspring said the Republican Party had “lost its way” in the last decade, “particularly on spending issues.” Cantor — along with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — focused their book “Young Guns” on that very topic, Dayspring said.
But, he added, “House Republicans then ran, and won, an entire election campaign pledging to be responsible stewards of federal tax dollars.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, breaking with fellow Republican Cantor, on Tuesday suggested that deficit-spending concerns should not be a factor as Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency respond to Hurricane Irene.
“My concern is that we help people in need,” McDonnell said during his monthly radio show. “For the FEMA money that’s going to flow, it’s up to them on how they get it. I don’t think it’s the time to get into that [deficit] debate.”
Before Irene hit, McDonnell had requested emergency help from FEMA in 10 districts, including Cantor’s. All the requests were granted. Roughly 360,000 people lost electricity in the Richmond Metropolitan Area — the hardest-hit region in Virginia, according to local reports.
Hurricane Irene was not the only natural disaster to visit Cantor’s district this month. Last week, an earthquake measuring 5.8 hit just outside of Richmond, sending shockwaves as far away as Georgia and Toronto.
Cantor’s office on Tuesday took steps to walk back the majority leader’s Fox remarks, issuing a statement vowing that victims of the recent disasters “will certainly get what they need from their federal government.” They also suggested it was possible that disaster funds would not be offset, though they said offsetting them would be the responsible thing to do.
“The goal should be to find ways to pay for what is needed or to find offsets whenever possible; that is the responsible thing to do — especially with a $14 trillion debt,” Cantor’s office said in a news release.
The White House, for its part, has also left itself flexibility on the topic. While White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday chided Cantor for not demanding that the previous administration pay for an “unprecedented” amount of bills, he also did not take a firm position on the question of offsets.
“The principle [is] that when we’re having a natural disaster and an emergency situation … our priority has to be responding to the disaster and helping those regions and states recover,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Virginia Democrats have been quick to pounce on Cantors recent comments, with Virginia’s Democratic Party accusing Cantor of being “unfit” to represent the state.
“Instead of doing everything he can to help Virginians and people on the East Coast recover from the loss of life and property that Irene dealt over the weekend, Cantor is parading around on Fox News talking about how he will hold federal aid hostage unless he gets to slash the budget,” David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a news release. “Anyone willing to play political games while people are suffering is unfit to be a congressman.”
The issue will come to a head next week, when lawmakers return from their five-week August vacation. Although FEMA is still assessing the extent of the damage, early estimates have it exceeding the $792 million FEMA has in its disaster account through the end of September — a shortfall demanding quick action from Congress.