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Bill Straub: Who’s paying attention to what KY’s DC delegation is doing? Your reps deserve scrutiny

WASHINGTON – Back in early April members of the Kentucky congressional delegation, quite appropriately, sent a letter to President Extremely Stable Genius supporting a request from Gov. Mad Matt Bevin that a large swath of the state be declared a disaster area.

In the letter, the lawmakers maintained that the Commonwealth “experienced severe weather that produced strong wind and torrential rain, which caused severe flooding, landslides, mudslides, and the tragic death of three individuals” in February and March, resulting in expenditures exceeding the $6.5 million threshold required for disaster consideration.

All well and good.

Now fast forward to June 3 when the House voted 354-58 for a long-delayed $19 billion bipartisan disaster relief bill to help provide the very sort of assistance requested by the Kentucky lawmakers to other unfortunates across the map.

According to ThinkProgress, a news site affiliated with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, 43 of the 58 Congress members who voted against the bill – all Republicans, by the way – had done so after requesting a disaster declaration for their own states. Included on that list, surprise surprise, were Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-SomewhereorotherLewisCounty (who deserves special accolades, as you’ll see).

That’s half of the Commonwealth’s delegation. And it should be noted that on May 23 the Senate passed the same measure – which President ESG has promised to sign – 85-8. One of the eight in opposition was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green who, like Barr, Comer and Massie, had earlier sought a disaster declaration for the Commonwealth’s benefit.

Now all this might sound a bit curious, particularly since Kentucky might need a piece of the pie in the future, as it has had in the past. The funding will provide assistance to flooded midwestern states, many along the bloated Mississippi River, fire-ravaged California and the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico.

About $3 billion will go to farmers. A large portion of Nebraska and sections of Iowa and South Dakota suffered from historic flooding this spring, destroying thousands of acres of soy, corn and wheat fields. Funds are intended to be funneled to farmers who lost stored grain, couldn’t plant or suffered severe damages to fields and fences.

If the federal government can’t step in and provide support for victims of natural disasters, then it ain’t worth truck, to steal a phrase from Twain. Yet, there they are, lined up in opposition to Americans in desperate need. For some, it wasn’t their first-time opposing disaster relief. In October 2017, for instance, Barr voted against extending hurricane relief to Puerto Rico, where American citizens were struggling to survive without water, energy and food after a devastating hurricane.

Jodi Whitaker, Barr’s communications director, said the lawmaker voted against what she described as “the bloated spending bill’’ for two primary reasons, asserting that “passing a piece of legislation with a $19 billion price tag and no way to pay for it is fiscally irresponsible” and that the bill “does not include much need reforms to the  National Flood Insurance Program, instead kicking the can down the road at the expense of the American taxpayer.”

“Congressman Barr has worked too hard to pass much needed bipartisan reforms to the broken National Flood Insurance Program to vote for a bill that yet again defers the urgent need to protect hardworking taxpayers,” she said.

First, let’s understand that those individuals devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires are taxpayers just like those who foot the flood insurance program — in fact, their taxes also support the program. They deserve and need help.

Now assume for a moment that both those claims are legitimate – although it’s hard to swallow when you recall that the 2018 tax cut bill Barr and his cohorts supported added at least $1 trillion to the deficit while benefitting the wealthy to a far greater extent than this disaster relief bill will ever benefit farmers.

The costly flood insurance program, for instance is in need of reform. But there’s no law that says such reform can only be achieved through a disaster relief bill when the financial future of so many people is at stake. And it’s hard to believe that Barr and the others would have opposed the measure if any of the current funds were directed at Kentucky.

This ordeal is an example of the callousness several Kentucky lawmakers exhibit in order to score philosophical points with crowds like the Club for Growth that keep score and exercise some authority in directing campaign funds to pliable candidates. Meanwhile victims of natural disasters and other calamities outside their ability to cope suffer.

Massie, as always, was right on top of things. House leadership, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that the bill would become law without a roll call vote while lawmakers were away for the Memorial Day break. Massie was one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who took to the floor to object to the process, thus further delaying final passage – an inevitability – for several days. But this is Massie, who does everything for effect while accomplishing nothing for his district or the nation. We’ve seen this roadshow before. His antics left farmers and homeowners wondering for additional days whether help was on the way.

Massie’s actions drew some national headlines so some of it seeped into Kentucky. But very few realized that Paul, Barr, and Comer also played a role in keeping disaster victims on edge.

And that’s the fault of the state’s traditional media. Television outlets from Pikeville to Paducah have rarely devoted much time or effort to the state’s congressional delegation and there’s no reason to believe they intend to pick up the slack. The Courier Journal in Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader used to have Washington correspondents to keep an eye on the Commonwealth’s delegation but those days are long gone, taking close scrutiny with them.

Now for the state’s major newspapers’ DC coverage is catch as catch can and there’s little price to be paid for lawmakers voting against bills that offer a helping hand to victims of disasters.

It’s just another sign of the sad and unfortunate decline of the news industry and the public is much the worse for it.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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