It’s difficult to engage productively on the hot-button political issue of the day if we don’t even agree on our terms. Some shared assumptions and universally understood definitions are a necessary starting place. Basic stuff, like, for example, where does the government’s money come from? You might know that taxpayer funds are drawn from the Treasury as a consequence of lawful appropriations, which must originate in the House of Representatives. Your opponents, however, could be operating on the assumption that national largess rains down on its intended targets only when it is disbursed from “the president’s wallet.”
That’s how Politico characterized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “history of using federal relief cash to fund his priorities.” The governor “has been a critic of Biden on nearly every policy front,” the outlet tweeted. “But he sure does like the president’s wallet.” The pathologically addled news hook that justifies the premise is, of course, the Sunshine State’s pursuit of congressionally authorized disaster aid following one of the worst hurricanes in the state’s history. Politico further notes that Florida’s governor has used federal funds, like Covid-related relief, to finance unrelated programs. If that’s hypocrisy, it’s not uncommon.
Tell me how the pandemic justified a $5 million disbursement to Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute. What public health emergency necessitated renovating Colorado Springs’ golf course irrigation systems? Did Seattle need to devote over $28 million to downtown apartments for the city’s homeless population, or was that one of the city’s esoteric “priorities?” Has anyone strapped on green eyeshades and audited L.A. County’s $5 million “creative works” jobs program for the city’s moribund “artists?”
Beyond the fact that cash is fungible (another elementary concept we apparently need to review), these are not the unintended consequences of the Covid relief bill. The various relief bills were designed to be oversized, subject to minimal oversight, and nimble enough to plug unanticipated holes wherever they appeared. The lack of interest from the press in the abject waste this program produced would be conspicuous enough. That we’re seeing fiscal prudence now, and only when it may damage a top-tier Republican political prospect, is beyond suspect.
The White House’s allies in media may just be echoing a form of ignorance the White House itself has deployed. President Biden’s political operation seems to have genuinely convinced itself that it could rebut criticism of his lawless transition of private student loan debt onto taxpayers’ shoulders by noting that some of them had taken advantage of Covid relief funding themselves. Some Republicans, they noted, received forgivable Paycheck Protection Program Act loans even as they criticize the president for stealing unappropriated funds from the Treasury to pad the pockets of a favored Democratic constituency. Gotcha!
The only good-faith justification for this is ignorance. The administration and its allies simply don’t comprehend the distinction between the lawful activation and disbursement of national resources—including the Disaster Relief Fund and FEMA—and the president just doing whatever he wants. Given the simplicity demanded of those who might believe this, a less charitable rationale for the White House’s conduct has more explanatory power.
But that is only one weapon in a multi-front attack on DeSantis. Another allegation maintains that DeSantis warms to disaster aid only when he is poised to benefit from it. When other Americans are in dire need, DeSantis defaults to miserly fastidiousness and pointless cruelty.
This week, the New York Times reminded its readers that, in the Northeast’s time of need, DeSantis used his platform in Congress to tell its residents to pound sand. Following the swath of destruction Hurricane Sandy cut across the Mid-Atlantic in 2012, DeSantis voted against an emergency appropriations bill, saying it contained “extraneous stuff.” This, the Times intones, is evidence of the governor’s inconsistency on disaster aid. Indeed, readers of this dispatch are guided to the conclusion that the only lodestar the governor follows is what he thinks will be best for his political brand.
The Times observes that, with the exception of Rep. Ted Yoho, DeSantis was the lone Republican member of Florida’s congressional delegation to oppose that aid package, but he wasn’t so isolated in his conference. DeSantis was joined by 57 other members of the Republican House majority in opposing the bill’s many dubious provisions. “This legislative abuse is an insult to families facing real emergencies in the wake of the storm,” said then-Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of the “non-Sandy expenses” in the bill. Among them, cash to repair shoreline erosion near the Kennedy Space Center, funding for fisheries from Alaska to American Samoa, a 9-figure disbursement for Head Start facilities, and $16 billion in fungible Community Development Block Grants.
As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler observed, the bill also contained $669.5 million for environmental projects and weather forecasting technology. “But that’s less than 2 percent of the total,” he wrote, to which the Republicans who opposed this bill would reply, “exactly!”
What is DeSantis’s sin here? Is he guilty of favoring Florida only to advance his own political prospects? Even the Times contradicts that narrative. “In 2017, as he was poised to run for governor,” the report continued, “Mr. DeSantis supported an aid package after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria as places like Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico strained to recover.” Okay, so is he a hypocrite by failing to join the Republicans who rejected those aid packages, too? The Times and Politico failed to make that case, lest they undermine the implicit narrative that opposing storm aid for any reason is a moral failure. Fine. So, he’s recklessly profligate with taxpayer funds, screams the party that just spent $4 trillion and only got this lousy t-shirt.
The only consistency we can divine from these scattershot attacks on DeSantis and his fellow Republicans is that it is somehow untoward to approve of and duly allocated federal funds while being critical of Democrats and their political priorities. Tough.