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Story highlights

Despite bipartisan pleas, conservatives in both the House and Senate sought to kill the emergency assistance package after Hurricane Sandy

Now, the storms have struck the districts of many of those same people, but most in Congress won't want an eye for an eye. They'll want to help anyway

Editor’s Note: Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. His next book, Big Guns, will be released in April. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

Now, even hurricanes are tainted by hypocrisy in Washington.

Steve Israel
Steve Israel
PHOTO: Courtesy Steve Israel

In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast. Homes were swept off their foundations, roofs blown off and lives and businesses were lost. Parts of my congressional district and our neighboring communities looked like they’d been hit by “bunker buster” bombs.

I’ll never forget touring neighborhoods that looked like they’d never recover and assuring people who’d lost everything that their government would provide the resources necessary to rebuild.

After the storm, the Obama administration proposed a $60.4 billion emergency bill to fund recovery efforts, which was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Congress traditionally puts aside political posturing when catastrophe strikes. This is not simply because it is the right thing to do; such a stance serves the national interest. Communities hit by disaster are a hit to the broader economy.

Our assumption was that the relief package for those affected by Sandy would be approved quickly and overwhelmingly. But that assumption was derailed by the reality of Washington gridlock. We learned that the only thing more devastating than a natural disaster was the force of obstructionist partisanship.

Led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and despite the bipartisan pleas of elected officials on the ground in areas devastated by the storm, conservatives in both the House and Senate sought to kill the emergency assistance package.

We were shocked. Many members of Congress whose districts were ravaged by Sandy’s wind and water had, in the past, supported relief for faraway states struck by tornadoes and drought. Now, some of the same people who happily accepted federal relief for their constituents refused to support assistance for ours.

Their objections ranged from criticizing elements of the package as wasteful and unnecessary to asserting an ideology that the federal government shouldn’t be bailing out local communities. But really, in my estimation, this was about scoring points in a Tea Party environment where you just couldn’t get extreme enough.

At the time, we asked what would happen when they needed our votes for their crises at home and promised that when their waters rose, levies broke and homes and businesses were demolished in their neck of the woods we’d raise the same arguments that they were making. They were unmoved.

Perhaps their sense of moral absolutism convinced them that some divine intervention would spare them. Or maybe they knew that we wouldn’t have the guts to do to them what they did to us.

The bill ultimately passed when House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi worked together to find 218 votes. Sixty-seven House members voted no, including 20 Texas House members who are still in Congress today.

Now, the storms have struck the districts of many of those same people. They are the “Comeuppance Caucus” – and there’s talk of punishing them by opposing the assistance they need. In politics, there’s always a day of reckoning, when scores are settled and disfavors are returned.

But in the end, I suspect my former colleagues will make their points without punishing the people who matter: Americans in Texas who have lost so much. Long Island congressman, Peter King, said it best: “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another.

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Perhaps those obstructionists were correct back then in calculating that we wouldn’t have the guts to reciprocate by voting “no” when they needed our support. Maybe my former colleagues don’t have the guts. But they have hearts. And most of them won’t want an eye for an eye.

It’s what makes them different, and frankly, better.