Our Views: A fair vote, but wrong

When U.S. Rep. John Fleming joined the minority of House members opposed to a component of Hurricane Sandy relief spending, he was setting himself up for some unfair criticism.

After all, there is an obvious issue of a Louisiana member of Congress opposing hurricane relief. Other members of the Louisiana delegation voted for the measure, which provided almost $10 billion in emergency funding for the flood insurance program, heavily tapped by Sandy’s ravages in the northeast.

The objection of Fleming, R-Minden, and others who opposed the bill is based on legitimate concerns about the budget. Typically, new federal spending should be “offset” with cuts or revenue increases elsewhere.

But as with every good rule, it’s bad judgment to make it an absolute rule. We think Fleming and other purer-than-thou deficit-cutters are wrong about disaster funding.

The reason is not that concern about the deficit is unwarranted, but that pragmatically there is no way this deeply divided Congress can agree on the offsets in the time frame needed for disaster response. With a full fiscal year, the Congress can’t agree on basic budgetary measures, much less offsets that would need to be found very quickly in cases of major emergencies.

Another reality is that the government, in straitened circumstances, is never going to put enough money in the bank to deal with emergencies like Sandy — or, for that matter, Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, Issac, the recent high-impact storms that have hit the Gulf Coast and particularly Louisiana.

We count on members of Congress exercising good judgment in how the government responds to these measures, but a green-eye-shade approach to nitpicking genuine emergency funding, even one as big as $9.7 billion in this case, isn’t practical. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., as senior member of the Louisiana delegation, has taken the lead on many of these issues, and she is right to reject the idea of offsets for disaster funding.

In this case, the Sandy aid is still far from a done deal. The situation has produced some biting criticism of House Republican leaders by Gov. Chris Christie, of New Jersey, a potential GOP presidential nominee.

The issue of disaster offsets is particularly concerning, though, because of Louisiana’s vulnerabilities. But it is also a sign that divisions in Congress can be taken past the point of reasonableness.

That’s a continuing, not episodic, disaster.