Skip to main content

Sen. Coburn: My bogus dilemma on tornado aid

By Tom Coburn, Special to CNN
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri May 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Tom Coburn: Despite reports, nobody in Congress is debating Oklahoma disaster aid
  • Coburn: FEMA has $11.6 billion for assistance, more than enough to help tornado victims
  • But if FEMA fund runs out, Coburn will stick by policy to deny aid without cuts elsewhere
  • Coburn: I opposed Sandy aid package because it was an "all-you-can-eat buffet"

Editor's note: Tom Coburn, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma and the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

(CNN) -- Millions of Americans have been shocked by the devastation caused by the tornadoes in Oklahoma. Having toured the area, it's impossible to put the scope of the damage in words. Not just homes but entire neighborhoods are gone.

Americans also may have been surprised to hear about a disagreement in Washington about delivering disaster aid to victims. The good news is this disagreement doesn't exist. No one in Washington is opposing delivering aid to victims. In fact, there is no aid bill for Oklahoma to even debate.

Sen. Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has $11.6 billion available in the fund for assistance to victims in all federally declared disasters, and this is likely more than sufficient to help victims in Oklahoma. As the ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees FEMA, I'm confident Oklahoma will receive the assistance it needs.

The bad news is some in the media have persisted in reporting on this nonexistent funding fight -- although it might happen in the future if FEMA runs out of money. My view is that focusing on funding questions now is premature and insensitive. Although I've never been shy about telling reporters and my constituents where I stand on tough questions, focusing on a fight that isn't happening is crass and irresponsible journalism.

Instead of reporting the facts about disaster spending, many news outlets have used the tragedy to talk about "dilemmas," "binds" and "divisions" among Republicans. At this point, these stories are only figments in the imaginations of a few journalists and editors who are having a difficult time keeping their opinions to themselves.

Case in point is Wednesday's Washington Post story, where I learned about my alleged dilemma on tornado aid. But The Post buried the real news in the 15th paragraph, which reads:

"At this point, all these questions are theoretical. There is no Oklahoma disaster relief bill. There may never be one. ... At the moment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a large stockpile of funds to pay for disaster response; members of Congress estimated it at $11.6 billion."

Parents saw daughter just before tornado

The article goes on to say that most legislators agree that the fund is adequate to handle the Oklahoma disaster, and it quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as saying "Right now, we don't need the money."

Coburn: Sandy bill was a pork fest
Tornado claims could top $2 billion

In other words, the real news is no Oklahoma disaster relief bill exists and, as Reid says, "we don't need the money."

Still, I have no objection to stating unequivocally that if FEMA runs out of money, I will encourage my colleagues to pay for any new assistance for Oklahoma, or anywhere else by reducing lower-priority spending rather than borrowing new money.

Let me explain why this principle is important. Under congressional budget rules, if disaster funds are exhausted, Congress can pass an "emergency supplemental spending" bill that does not count against that year's budget caps.

In other words, Congress can simply borrow new money without setting priorities or making hard choices about where to cut the budget elsewhere. At a time when we're losing $200 billion a year because of waste and duplication, not setting priorities doesn't make sense in any circumstance. Why respond to one disaster by creating another one for taxpayers?

Some have suggested it is hypocritical for me to support disaster aid in my state after opposing the Sandy emergency aid bill for the Northeast. But my position has been the same for my entire service in Congress, starting when I pushed for offsets to the Oklahoma City bombing supplemental bill in 1995.

My position has never been to oppose all forms of disaster aid. My position has been to oppose politicians who use disasters to spend money that has nothing to do with helping victims of disasters. The hard truth is both parties have abused the emergency spending process in Congress for many years.

For instance, when the Gulf Coast was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many in Washington were appalled by my suggestion that times of tragedy and disaster are precisely the times for politicians to tighten their belts and make hard choices. One of the sacrifices I proposed was to divert funds from a $223 million bridge in Alaska -- known as the "Bridge to Nowhere" -- to a bridge over Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. My colleagues fumed: How dare I force such choices? My response was -- and is: How dare we not force such choices?

The Superstorm Sandy package, unfortunately, is another recent example. I supported a scaled-down $25 billion version of disaster aid for Sandy, but I strongly opposed a $50 billion package that was an all-you-can-eat buffet for politicians and politically connected contractors.

Much of the larger Sandy package had little to do with helping victims of the disaster. More than $5 billion was directed to the Army Corps of Engineers -- more than the Corps' annual budget. Even NASA was in on the game. NASA said its damage from the storm was minimal, but Congress wanted to give it $15 million anyway. The most revealing aspect was more than 70% of the $50 billion would not be spent for two years, which meant it was an economic stimulus package, not a disaster aid bill.

I don't believe anyone in the Senate wants or anticipates a Sandy- or Katrina-like fight about emergency spending offsets for Oklahoma.

Still, if any politicians in Washington hope to use Oklahoma's tragedy as vehicle for pork, don't bother. State Rep. Mark McBride from Moore, Oklahoma, put it best this week on MSNBC: "We don't want anything. We don't want anything extra. We just want to rebuild our city. And whatever they can do for us they can cough up, and whatever they don't, we`ll make it up. That`s the way we roll here."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sen. Tom Coburn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT