Hurricane Irene, now a Category 3 storm, is headed up the Eastern Seaboard, threatening considerable damage and loss of life.
As the Weather Channel puts it, “this is a particularly threatening situation … computer models are currently trending toward a forecast solution of rare potency for portions of the Northeast. … Irene has the potential to be a serious and multi-hazard threat for the major metropolitan areas of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. This includes Norfolk, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford, and Boston.”
At this stage, Irene is predicted to still be a Category 2 storm, with winds of 100 mph, by the time it hits the Washington, D.C. area sometime Sunday morning. A storm that big, hitting a handful of the nation’s densest urban areas almost simultaneously in a region not conditioned to hurricanes, has the potential to be a major disaster, requiring a full-out response by local, state and federal officials.
Or, maybe not.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, has consistently argued that any appropriation for emergency relief must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. With a major hurricane headed Virginia’s way, his office confirms has already announced that remains his position. And as we all already know, raising taxes to make the spending revenue-neutral won’t be an option either.
That approach is consistent with what Mitt Romney said back in June, in a GOP debate held shortly after tornadoes had destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri.
In a response to a question from John King, Romney said he would oppose federal disaster aid that would increase the deficit, proposing instead to leave that duty to the states. Given the chance by King to back off that position regarding relief operations in a major natural disaster, Romney refused, reiterating that we simply can’t afford it:
We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”
There is, I suppose, a certain consistency in that position. As the argument goes, the words “hurricane”, “disaster” and even “storm” appear nowhere in the Constitution. In fact, under the conservative, states’ rights interpretation of the 10th Amendment so favored by Cantor, Rick Perry and others, it might even be unconstitutional for the federal government to respond to such a disaster.
While liberals might try to cite language in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” conservatives have made it pretty clear that the provision in question doesn’t apply in such matters.
As the Heritage Foundation helpfully explains in its guide to the Constitution prepared for members of Congress, “spending under the clause (must) be for the ‘general’ (that is, national) welfare and not for purely local or regional benefit.”
It goes on to quote James Madison to that same effect, arguing that congressional spending power is limited “to purposes of common defence, and of general, national, not local, or state, benefit.” It further notes that “the Fourth Congress did not believe it had the power to provide relief to the citizens of Savannah, Georgia, after a devastating fire destroyed the entire city.”
In this case, Hurricane Irene is projected to wreak havoc from North Carolina all the way north through Virginia and Maryland and on up into Massachusetts. While that comprises most, but not all, of the 13 original colonies, it doesn’t affect states such as California, Oregon, Iowa and even Georgia, not to mention Hawaii and Alaska.
In other words, sorry Eastern Seaboard. You’re on your own. Let us know how it all turns out for you.
– Jay Bookman
NOTE: This post has been edited slightly since the orginal posting.