“Disgraceful, indefensible, immoral…”
These are words often uttered by politicians and political commentators alike. Almost always, they are targeted at decisions or statements made by their political opponents on the other side of the aisle, or by their same-party rivals during a primary campaign.
But when Congressman Peter King took to the floor of the House of Representatives late Tuesday night, he was using these adjectives to describe a decision made by a fellow Republican, Speaker John Boehner, not to allow legislation on Hurricane Sandy aid to be voted on by the House after it was passed in the Senate by a strong bipartisan majority.
“We cannot believe that this cruel knife in the back was delivered to our region,” King declared, noting that within 10 days after Hurricane Katrina, $10 million in aid was allocated by Congress; more than $100 million was given altogether. Nine weeks after Superstorm Sandy, Congress hasn’t allocated a dime.
Representative Michael Grimm, a Republican, called it a betrayal. Fellow Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said he tried to call Boehner four times after the decision was made public, but none of the calls was returned. Christie termed it “absolutely disgraceful” and complained about the “toxic internal politics” of the House majority. He released a joint statement with Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, blasting the decision.
“The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty,” the statement read.
New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, also a Republican, weighed in as well, calling it “absolutely unconscionable.”
It remains unclear why Boehner refused to listen to the pleas of the members of the New York and New Jersey delegations and simply walked off the House floor, informing an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor that there would be no vote before the 112th Congress adjourns on Thursday. Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, was ready to have the House vote on the bill and was surprised when the Speaker made the decision late Tuesday to let it die for this session of Congress.
After outraged fellow Republicans and infuriated Democrats went public with their harsh condemnations, Boehner met privately with Representatives of the afflicted areas and vowed that a vote on smaller portion of the promised money would be held in the new Congress on Friday, and the bill allocating the rest of the money would be considered on January 15. Since the vote will be taken in the new Congress, the Senate also will have to approve the legislation.
At the meeting, Boehner reportedly explained that after the contentious vote to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” he didn’t think it was the right time to schedule the vote. Yet given the strong bipartisan support for assistance to Sandy victims, this explanation is difficult to comprehend. Even if some of the conservative members, reluctant to spend more taxpayer money, would have balked, the strong support of the Democratic minority could have helped push it through with a minimal amount of Republican votes.
Both King and Grimm seemed satisfied when the meeting with Boehner concluded.
“What’s done is done. The end result will be New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will receive the funding they deserve. We made our position clear last night. That’s in the past,” King said.
In a statement, Grimm said that while he “completely disagreed with the Speaker’s decision to delay the long overdue vote,” he never questioned Boehner’s personal desire to help N.Y., N.J. and the thousands of people suffering from the devastation of Sandy. “In the end, after a slight delay, we will deliver,” Grimm said.
Although Boehner may have found a way to assuage the offended feelings of his colleagues, he still owes the American people an explanation for his actions. But he is hardly the only one in Washington whose behavior is open to criticism.
The maneuvering exhibited during the past few weeks by members on both sides of the political divide has been nothing short of a national embarrassment. Clearly aware that they were seriously endangering an already fragile economy, the White House and Congress put politics before policy as they dallied until the county was quite literally teetering on the infamous “fiscal cliff” before reaching a deal.
Both sides knew that eventually they would have to compromise, and this very agreement could have easily been crafted months ago. There was no reason for the acrimonious exchange of charges and counter-charges and the long weeks of counterproductive suspense.
Governor Christie is right that Washington D.C. is plagued by “toxic internal politics.” But this malady doesn’t only affect the House Republican majority, but the entire political establishment on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.