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Blowback is a term applied to an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result or set of repercussions. Normally, we associate it with actions or policies in international affairs; for example, supplying arms to a group or faction only to have those weapons later turned against the supplier.

Recently, we have seen a different form of blowback. The impact of and some of the reaction to the winds and water from the hurricane and floods demonstrate the blowback effect; for example, in the political positioning on disaster relief.

A large contingent of congressional conservatives opposed or delayed federal assistance in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. When Sandy struck New Jersey and New York, storm relief became embroiled in partisan debate, with many conservative Republicans leading the opposition to large-scale aid.

Now, there's a particularly ironic blowback twist. Some of the strongest opposition to post-Sandy funding came from the Texas congressional delegation. With Texas now devastated by Hurricane Harvey, the shoes are on the other feet. And it was interesting to watch Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put on his dancing shoes and engage in fancy footwork trying to explain why there is a difference between providing major disaster relief for the northeast and directing assistance to the Gulf Coast and surrounding areas.

When Cruz was first asked about this, he said the Sandy relief bill was loaded with pork, claiming that two-thirds of the funding had nothing to do with Sandy. Texas Sen. John Cornyn also insisted that the Sandy bill was laden with "extraneous" funds. However, closer examination of the Sandy package showed that almost everything in the bill was Sandy-related. Altogether, about $56 billion was approved to assist 12 East Coast states and the District of Columbia. Sandy had affected largely Democratic states.

Texans in Congress overwhelmingly voted against the final Sandy bill. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, then serving in the House, argued that disaster assistance funding had to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. He drew criticism for opposing several disaster relief measures.

There are certainly doubters about the current Harvey aid proposals, with estimates that costs to the government may exceed $100 billion. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes his state will need more than $125 billion in federal relief dollars.

These catastrophic events raise larger questions about the role of government as well as national priorities.

The federal government has spent more than $200 billion on disaster relief (including some assistance after Arkansas tornados) in the past 15 years -- before Harvey and all the related problems. Rep. Al Green, a Democrat who represents part of the Houston area, said he hopes political squabbles will be set aside in considering an emergency spending request. As Green said, "This is what the government is supposed to do -- respond when there's a crisis, provide for the safety of the public."

Yet there are those whose principal political theme is government bashing. Most of us recognize spending needs to be reined in, and inefficiencies and waste are abundant. But it is too facile to make government a whipping boy. There's lots of disdain for government -- except when it is needed. Government will be efficient if voters compel it to be efficient.

Interestingly, there was considerable talk in Washington about a government shutdown, particularly with the issue of raising the debt ceiling, again, on the horizon. Earlier, the Trump administration had planned major cuts in the FEMA budget. However, that was before Harvey and the storm's demand for major relief spending.

As for priorities, the storm's political winds would seem to further dim the prospects for "the wall." This was, of course, to be paid for by Mexico, according to the president, but that isn't happening, and some of his backers have been trying to get some funding through Congress. But there's a good chance that the storm has blown "against the wall."

The news about Harvey and its impact wasn't fake news and there has been some exceptional news coverage, reminding us of the important role of media in our society.

All the focus on the tragic events in the Gulf Coast area has diverted attention from some of the controversies and conflicts that have marked politics and government in the opening months of the Trump administration. And it provided Trump with an opportunity to reach out and demonstrate concern for the storm victims, and get extensive media coverage. He seemed a bit off-tone at times, but he clearly avoided repeating the blunder by George W. Bush at the time of Katrina.

And while Harvey's aftermath requires attention, we can't overlook the imposing list of issues on the agenda, particularly Afghanistan and Korea. Erratic bellicosity can result in blowback and, even worse, blowup.

Commentary on 09/06/2017

Print Headline: Political winds shift

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