The Political Storm of Hurricane Harvey
After Hurricane Harvey, the national media often unfairly attacked Houston and Texas. But not all of it was without basis.
After years of Texas political leaders taking a tea party line on attacking the federal government as a spendthrift and a threat to individual freedom, Hurricane Harvey opened up a forum for liberals to attack Houston and Texas—often unfairly—as a model of political hypocrisy.
An editorial cartoon published by Politico shortly after the storm hit showed a Confederate battle flag-wearing cowboy as a Coast Guard helicopter airlifted him out of the Houston flood, his secede sign and Gadsen flag he left behind still visible above the water. “Angles! Sent by God!” the Texan declared, as the rescuer responded, “Er, actually Coast Guard . . . sent by the government.” Another cartoon, this one in the Los Angeles Times, depicted a FEMA worker carrying an angry-looking Texan with “Get government off my back!” emblazoned on his shirt as his colleague rescues two children and a dog. And though observational humorist Garrison Keillor wrote in the Washington Post last week that he is all for pouring money into the “Republic of Texas” for relief from Hurricane Harvey, he still couldn’t resist taking a dig at the libertarian land policies of Houston: “Houstonians chose to settle on a swampy flood plain barely 50 feet above sea level. The risks of doing so are fairly clear. If you chose to live in a tree and the branch your hammock was attached to fell down, you wouldn’t ask for a government subsidy to hang your hammock in a different tree.”
But Texas’s populated floodplains weren’t the only thing bothering critics. An op-ed in the Washington Post, penned by a pair of lawyers who teach tax law, suggested that it was wrong for the federal government to just give Texas money to rebuild. The op-ed suggested a loan instead, citing the state’s low tax burden on its citizens and business. “Texas wants and needs federal help to rebuild from Harvey, and the federal government should provide significant financial aid,” the piece read. “But it is grossly unfair for Texas to accept funds from all of America’s taxpayers to allow it to continue its exceptionally low-taxed ways. Unless Texas is willing to bear a reasonable share of the Harvey costs through increased state and local taxes, then the rest of the United States would just be giving Texas a handout.”
Although it is almost impossible to defend some of the statewide political leaders from charges of hypocrisy—from both Democrats and Republicans—the insults toward Houston are not only mean spirited toward suffering people, but ignorant. Consider this: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton received 54 percent of the vote in hard-hit Harris County. Blue state liberals seem to glean great satisfaction from criticizing a Republican state, but at the expense of a progressive beachhead where Democrats swept last year’s elections.
In a demonstration of the bipartisanship that is missing from national politics—and in Texas at the state level—Democratic Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Republican County Judge Ed Emmett banded together and did exactly what the tax lawyers in the Washington Post were suggesting: They proposed raising taxes locally to pay for at least part of the bill. Turner wants a temporary property tax increase to pay for hurricane clean-up, while Emmett talked of a regional authority with the power to raise sales taxes to build flood control infrastructure, while also buying out homes and businesses in flood-prone areas. Emmett’s plan would raise property taxes for years to come, but the commissioner’s court is embracing it. Both Turner and Emmett have embraced help from the federal government, but they aren’t just looking for a handout.
And as for Keillor’s absurdist argument, there’s plenty of other examples to look to. New Orleans is below sea level and is predicted to sink in the future. Los Angeles faces the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake. Florida and Georgia have been hammered by Hurricane Irma. And even Keillor’s home state of Minnesota suffered millions of dollars of damage as a result of Superstorm Sandy. People often live in places where they shouldn’t.
In fairness to the coastal critics, though, Texas’ statewide politicians have made us easy targets when we’re in need of the federal government’s assistance. Former Governor Rick Perry never suggested that the state secede, but he said we could if we wanted to. (In Texas v. White, 1869, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was almost impossible for Texas to secede.) During the Obama Administration, then-Attorney General Abbott bragged about the number of lawsuits he had filed against the federal government: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” Current Attorney General Ken Paxton has followed in his footsteps. Paxton’s wife, Angela, who has announced her candidacy for state Senate, used to sing a song at campaign events saying she was a “pistol packin’ mamma whose husband sues Obama.”
But after years of state politicians poking the federal government in the eye, they are finding it only feels good until someone pokes back.
As Harvey has unfolded, there’s been special scrutiny on the Texas congressional delegation. In 2013, U.S. Representative John Culberson was the only member of the 38-person delegation to vote in favor of the $50 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill. When the U.S. House recently voted for $15 billion in aid for Harvey, only four Texans voted against it. U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican, chastised them. “It’s unconscionable to vote against something like that,” McCaul said, evidently forgetting his own vote against Hurricane Sandy relief.
Still, East Coast anger over the vote is more often directed at U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. When MSNBC reporter Katy Tur brought up his vote against the 2013 relief package recently, Cruz claimed that “two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” USA Today’s Fact Check followed up on that assertion: “We wouldn’t use the “L” word, but we do find that at least two-thirds of the bill was related to Hurricane Sandy—the opposite of what Cruz said.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and U.S. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, slammed Cruz for his perceived double standard. King said he wouldn’t let the Texas votes affect his support for Harvey relief, but he told a Long Island televisions station he wasn’t going to let it pass without a dig at Cruz: “Ted Cruz was one of the leaders of trying to keep New York and Long Island and New Jersey from getting the funding we needed, and now he’s the first one in asking for aid for Texas,” Rep. King says. “But as badly as I feel toward Ted Cruz, and what a hypocrite he is, I’m not going to take it out on the people of Texas.”
Also widely overlooked by the news media is Abbott’s change in policy position on the wisdom of local governments, when a little over a month ago, the governor called a special session that, in part, sought to limit them. The governor described the actions of local governments as limits on freedom. “While we rightly rail against overreach by the federal government, local municipalities are increasingly infringing on private property rights,” Abbott wrote in an op-ed promoting limits on municipal annexation authority, which ultimately passed. When Republican mayors approached him to oppose tax and spending caps on local governments, Abbott told them they would just have to suffer so limits could be placed on cities that were not being frugal in their spending. But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Abbott has embraced the idea that local officials are best positioned to understand their communities. “Local officials know best what the needs of local constituents are,” Abbott said. Of all the news stories I read, only the Houston Chronicle picked up on Abbott’s change of politics.
National liberals unfairly took pot shots at Houston and Harris County after Hurricane Harvey—Texas doesn’t tax enough; Houston has uncontrolled development; Texans voted against Hurricane Sandy relief. Ultimately, though, it was the state’s elected Republican leadership who gave them the ammunition.