Tom Coburn: After Moore Tornado, Senator Plays Politics With Disaster Aid

Emergency crews and volunteers are continuing the search for survivors after Monday's devastating tornados in and around Moore, Okla. The Oklahoma City medical examiner reports that the tornados, which destroyed two schools and a hospital, have taken 24 lives and injured over 150, many of whom are children. Although President Obama has pledged the full support of FEMA, aid may be stalled by Oklahoma’s own Republican senators, Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, who are insisting that cuts be made to offset any disaster aid.

Residents who lost homes and businesses will likely turn to the federal government for emergency disaster aid in the months to come, and the cost will be high. Moore is in the same area where a 1999 tornado killed 41 and injured hundreds, a disaster after which Oklahomans requested and received $67.8 million in federal relief funds.

While President Obama has pledged the resources of the federal government to Gov. Mary Fallin, Sen. Tom Coburn is saying he will “absolutely” demand offsets elsewhere in the federal budget for any aid Congress sends to his home state. 

Coburn and Inhofe, both fiscal hawks, have a history of voting against disaster aid and to cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) budget. Last year, both were in favor of cutting disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Coburn complained that the bill authorizing relief aid contained “wasteful spending,” including "$12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation activities and studies."

A Coburn spokesman explained that “[as Coburn’s] voting record and campaign against earmarks demonstrates … he makes no apologies for voting against disaster aid bills that are often poorly conceived and used to finance priorities that have little to do with disasters. […] That's always been his position [to offset disaster aid]. He supported offsets to the bill funding the OKC bombing recovery effort."

In an instance, which appears to be to the exception and not the rule, Coburn pushed for the speedy delivery of disaster relief aid for Oklahoma after a major ice storm in January of 2007. While some have commended Coburn for his consistency, others question whether Coburn is being callous.

While Coburn’s consistency in policy and commitment to a strictly managed budget would usually be commended, should disaster relief for Americans not be the exception? After witnessing the effects that underfunded as mismanaged relief efforts had in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there should be bipartisan support for responding quickly and fully to American communities destroyed by natural disasters at whatever cost. Although Coburn is right to insist that the money be well spent and accounted for, these concerns should not hinder the delivery of aid to those in need.

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Maxime Fischer-Zernin

Studying Political Science at Duke University (T. '15). His interests lie primarily in American national security and foreign policy. He is currently an Editor-at-Large for the Duke Political Review, and is a contributor for PolicyMic.com.

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