Hurricane Matthew is poised to hit Washington, D.C.
Hear this out for a moment.
Forecasters predict the storm will tear through the Florida, Georgia and Carolina coastlines over the next two days. It could be the most-potent hurricane to crash the U.S. mainland in more than a decade. Just a few days ago, severe weather specialists pondered the chances of Matthew lashing the outskirts of the nation’s capital, a la Hurricane Hazel in 1954. But a big trough in the jet stream is too far north to suction Matthew into the Beltway region. The storm is now expected to perform a curly-q once it whipsaws the southern U.S. rather than drifting northward.
But alas, those are the meteorological models.
Check out the political models.
If past is prologue, Hurricane Matthew could well be a full-blown Cat 5 on the political version on the Saffir-Simpson scale when it makes landfall in Washington.
Congress is out of session until after the election. Lawmakers just approved a temporary spending bill last week to avoid a government shutdown. It’s likely Congress will wrestle with a broad, so-called “omnibus” package to again fund the government come Christmastime. And if Matthew is as bad as meteorologists expect, a debate about emergency assistance for Florida could dominate the conversation.
Keep in mind that lawmakers just stitched aid for flooding in Louisiana onto last month’s temporary spending measure. A storm of Matthew’s magnitude could prompt a reprise of such efforts – only for a different part of the country.
In politics, Mother Nature is the most democratic force in the universe. Earthquakes rattle California. Wildfires char the mountain west. Floods soak the Mississippi delta. Tornadoes spin through the Great Plains. Blizzards grip the Midwest. Ice storms paralyze New England. Hurricanes boil just off the Gulf Coast. Volcanoes belch in Hawaii.
Every part of the country has its own type of disaster. So when the earthquakefirefloodtornadoblizzardicestormhurricanevolcano strikes a given lawmaker’s district or state, they’re calling on Washington and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to chip in.
This goes for Democrats and Republicans. You thought all politics was local? Natural disasters are even more quintessentially provincial.
For years, a natural disaster would strike and Congress would quickly attach some disaster relief dollars onto the next big appropriations bill. It was just how they did things in Washington. Members of Congress – regardless of party – were loath to oppose any of those packages. Why? Well, this month it might have been a wildfire out west. But if you’re a congressman from New England, winter and an ice storm are coming. An earthquake may have just jolted San Francisco. But senators representing the Great Plains know tornado season is up next spring.
Congress infused FEMA with plenty of cash ahead of time a few years ago to sidestep these appropriations crises. That approach mitigated some spending fights after each individual natural disaster. But it’s impossible to anticipate what’s necessary following each calamity.
Resistance to providing some emergency relief after various natural disasters materialized in 2011 and 2012 as Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. In 2010, voters elected Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers to specifically slash spending. Coughing up additional aid heaped billions of dollars onto the deficit.
Superstorm Sandy punished the East Coast in late October, 2012. Then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, struggled to engineer enough votes to approve an aid package. There was hope Congress would pass the assistance package in late December of that year. But it was not to be.
Congress finally approved the Sandy aid plan in early 2013. The House okayed the plan 241-180. But despite holding the majority, a scant 49 Republicans joined 192 Democrats to vote aye. The vote on the Sandy measure represented the fewest members of the majority party to vote for a major piece of legislation which the House passed in years.
That roll call revealed something fascinating: almost all Republicans in favor were either members of leadership, committee chairs, moderates – or represented areas near the Gulf Coast subject to hurricanes. In other words, Sandy wrecked New York City and the northeast U.S. But those lawmakers who endured Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other storms knew they couldn’t oppose such a plan to help another region. A nay vote would be hypocritical.
Of course no one knows what devastation Matthew might mete out. But one thing’s for sure: storms thousands of miles away from Washington often rip through the Beltway. Examine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how it helped tarnish the GOP brand. That helped Democrats score House and Senate control in 2006.
Another example is Category 5 Hurricane Andrew which smashed southern Florida in late August, 1992. The Administration of President George H.W. Bush failed to order an evacuation ahead of Andrew. Moreover, FEMA didn’t distribute the necessary aid.
“Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?” exploded Kate Hale, head of the Dade County, Florida Emergency Management division. “For God’s sake, where are they?”
The biggest concern with many of these hurricanes is the storm surge. That’s the wall of water that tears through communities. Congress must figure out a way to fund the government again this fall. And complicating those efforts could be a political storm surge washing through Capitol Hill that wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen when lawmakers left a few days ago.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.