Inside Today's Sandy Relief Bill That's Not All About Sandy Relief

J.K. Trotter
The Atlantic Wire

Today the House will finally vote on the long-delayed second half of a federal relief bill that allocates approximately $51 billion for damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Well, hopefully — a host of earmarks have made this package almost as emotional as the debate over the first part, and a laundry list of amendments might not make this as simple as helping still-reeling storm victims.

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The bill funds a bunch of low-interest loan programs to help people reboot their businesses and provides block grants for a number of projects that will try to rebuild much of what Sandy destroyed. But, according to an array of conservative think tanks and politicians, the bill is just stuffed with "pork": provisions that have nothing to do with post-Sandy disaster relief. Here's what the Club for Growth wrote today, in bold lettering:

Disasters may be unpredictable, but we know with 100% certainty that they will occur. Therefore, Congress shouldn't keep passing massive "emergency" relief bills that aren't paid for, have little oversight, and are stuffed with pork.

And this morning the Heritage Foundation uploaded a dark video filled with foreboding music to its YouTube channel:

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Among the "pork" cited by Heritage (and others, like the National Review):

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  • $150 million for fisheries in Alaska damaged by the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which littered debris on Alaska's shoreline
  • $41 million to repair military bases damaged by Hurricane Sandy (including, controversially, Guantanamo Bay)
  • $2 million to fix an (apparently quite expensive) roof at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
  • $13 billion for future flood preparations (that is, money that will not be spent on victims of Sandy but on preventing future, Sandy-scale disasters from occurring)

With the exception of the Smithsonian roof — $2 million, really? — none of these seem superfluous, exactly. Alaska has been asking for relief for years, and Guantanamo Bay was actually damaged during Hurricane Sandy. And it seems a little silly to demonize any tactics of prevention — which, as Hurricane Katrina showed, are a much more cost-efficient way of dealing with natural disasters.

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The problem, as advocates of fiscal discipline put it, is that these provisions, no matter how important, are attached to a bill that carries a particular emotional force (to which Chris Christie's recent rant against Boehner attests) and thus will not receive their due of scrutiny. Of course, "pork" isn't necessarily "bad" just because it's unrelated to the bill's intent; it's only bad if it's not going to do anything useful with taxpayer money. Hopefully House Republicans (and Democrats) will keep this in mind as they prepare the bill's many amendments, which threaten even more of the bill's provisions.