Politics Ted Cruz and Texas Republicans' votes on Hurricane Sandy aid have reignited a heated debate over disaster relief

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Whether the Sandy relief bill was full of "pork" has a lot to do with your opinion on what a disaster-relief bill should be.

Sen. Ted Cruz. play

Sen. Ted Cruz.

(Getty Images/Pool)
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Congress is expected to pass a disaster-relief bill to help provide much-needed funding for the affected areas of Texas and Louisiana.

But Texas Republicans' record on the 2013 disaster-relief bill for Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast in 2012, has drawn criticism and reopened old wounds in Congress this week as lawmakers prepare to address another round of hurricane-related damage.

Most notably, Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn voted against that bill.

When reporters over the past few days challenged Cruz about his vote, he defended himself, citing "unnecessary pork" provisions in the Sandy bill as the reasons for his opposition. In 2013, Cruz called the bill a "Christmas tree" with gifts for various lawmakers' "pet projects."

Cornyn has also said this week that he voted against the bill because it became filled with extraneous spending.

The Sandy relief bills

There were two bills aimed at relief in Sandy's destructive wake. A smaller, $9.7 billion bill to restock the coffers of the National Flood Insurance Program passed relatively easily, with just a voice vote in the Senate. But a handful of Republicans in the House opposed it, including eight from Texas.

The larger, more controversial package eventually passed with a bit over $50 billion in extra funding. It was smaller than the original relief bill Cruz voted against, which requested just over $60 billion.

There were additional funds in the larger bill that did not address the immediate recovery effort. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has found that nearly all the funding was related to the storm or preventing disasters. But the debate has reopened this week about what exactly a disaster-relief bill should include.

Theodore Kupfer, a National Review writer, argued in a piece shared widely by allies of the Texas Republicans that some additional funds in the Sandy bill were unrelated to the storm and addressed other disasters in states outside the immediately affected areas.

"Much of the bundle of bacon that politicians squeezed into the Sandy relief bill had nothing to do with even the general category of hurricanes, much less Hurricane Sandy," Kupfer wrote. "If anyone was cynically exploiting a natural disaster to score political points, it was not those who opposed the bill but those who designed it."

Cruz argued that the bill should have been only for Sandy relief and dealing with its immediate effects. The other items constituted "pork," he has said.

"The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork," he said in a recent interview with NBC. "Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy."

A short- or long-term fix?

Others have argued that a disaster-relief bill should be viewed not only as a short-term fix, but as one that addresses the underlying and long-term issues that contributed to the disaster.

Scott Knowles, a professor at Drexel University who studies public-policy responses to disasters, tweeted Monday that much of the long-term funding in the Sandy bill was designed to recognize and prevent similar disasters.

"Here's the point — either you believe disaster relief is water bottles, sandbags, & shelters — OR you believe it is about reducing risk," Knowles tweeted. "The 'pork' bill so derided by the House GOP in 2013 was a good first pass on addressing the infrastructures we need to reduce risk. Congress won't appropriate funds for such a far-sighted approach, so we must wait to spend until after the disaster — that's NOT ideal."

For instance, one of the most scrutinized parts of the bill was an appropriation aimed at improving the weather-data-gathering operation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Critics suggested this was an example of "pork" in the bill and should go in separate legislation since it did not immediately address Sandy relief. Proponents say improving those services would help with disaster preparedness for a storm exactly like Sandy.

'1 bad turn doesn't deserve another'

Cruz has used the CBO's score of the Sandy relief bill to show that only 30% of the funds were projected to be spent in the first two years after it passed.

The Washington Post reported, however, that some of the money was doled out over time to adjust for the needs of various municipalities. For instance, some subway tunnel repairs in New York City related to Sandy aren't getting underway until 2019.

Several lawmakers from the Northeast, including some Republicans, have expressed support for aid for Texas in the wake of Harvey despite Cruz and others' votes on the Sandy bill.

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, tweeted Sunday that he would vote for a Harvey relief bill.

"NY wont abandon Texas," he wrote. "1 bad turn doesn't deserve another."

Lawmakers have discussed the possibility of tying a Harvey relief bill to a broader funding package for the federal government or an increase in the debt ceiling. That would tie extraneous political concerns to legislation nominally designed to provide relief in the wake of the storm.