As Texas attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott bragged that a typical day was to wake up in the morning, sue the federal government and go home. Then do the same thing the next day.
It was a line that garnered big laughs and applause in Republican circles that shared Abbott’s cynicism and scorn of big government’s regulatory authority over states.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Abbott and other Republicans are looking to the same federal government they repeatedly berated to do what state government cannot do: steer Texas through one of the nation’s worst natural disasters — and pay for the cleanup and rebuilding of Houston, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, La Grange, Smithville and the many other areas hit hard by Harvey.
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Certainly, natural disasters are humbling experiences that can and do bring out the best in people as they come to the aid of family members, neighbors and strangers. But they also offer lessons about the relevancy and role of big government: Harvey’s cleanup is huge and expensive — and notably impossible without the federal government’s financial resources and expertise in managing disasters.
What other governmental entity or nonprofit could handle a disaster that affected an estimated 100,000 homes in Texas and Louisiana and tens of thousands of people, even as it prepares for another possible disaster from a new threat – Hurricane Irma, which is expected to hit Florida this weekend?
The federal government is not perfect, but it is certainly capable in many areas, including disaster relief and management, health insurance for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income children, and protecting the nation’s security, food supply and air and water quality, just to name a few. Big government still does big things.
Abbott knows that. After all, he is relying on the federal government for up to $180 billion in aid the governor estimates will be needed to repair and rebuild homes, businesses, roads and other infrastructure in storm-ravaged cities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies worked around the clock since Harvey hit to assist tens of thousands of stranded Texans.
To that point, the federal government, including President Donald Trump, who twice visited Texas in Harvey’s wake, is responding to calls for help. Trump rightly requested $7.9 billion as an immediate down payment in Harvey aid and reached across the aisle to get it.
For now, Abbott has decided not to use the state’s $10.3 billion so-called rainy day fund to cover expenses of state agencies for projects related to Harvey, including the Texas Department of Transportation’s costs for clearing and repairing roads. Though those expenses are eligible for federal reimbursement, there is an inescapable irony in biting the hand that feeds oneself.
Consider that Abbott is looking to the federal Environmental Protection Agency – which Abbott, as attorney general, sued 17 times, according to the Washington Post – to clean up and monitor pollution caused by flooding, including the 13 toxic waste sites in the Houston area that are designated Superfund sites.
Speaking on FOX and CNN, Abbott said of those sites, “the EPA is monitoring that. The EPA is going to get on top of that.”
In his role as state attorney general, Abbott filed 31 lawsuits against the federal government during President Obama’s tenure, The Texas Tribune reported in January. The lawsuits covered areas like climate change, business regulations, immigration and social issues. His successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton had mounted 17 lawsuits up to that point. Costs for 39 of the 48 lawsuits amounted to nearly $6 million, The Tribune’s analysis showed.
It’s worth noting that the state lost more than it won, though winning was not necessarily the point. Even when it is not deserved, harsh criticism of the federal government appeals to important sectors of the GOP base, including social conservatives and business and industry. It also helps shield Republican incumbents in GOP primaries from challenges from the right.
That kind of posturing was taken to a larger, more hypocritical level by Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who in 2013 voted against a $50 billion relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy but now is cheerleading efforts to get federal aid for Harvey.
Cruz and Abbott tout the state’s independence from Washington, but here’s what they won’t tell the public: The Lone Star State relies on big government’s dollars. About 32 percent of the state government’s revenue is federal money, the New York Times reported last week, citing an analysis by the Tax Foundation.
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Another irony that came into focus during the special legislative session that ended in July is that Abbott only dislikes big government when it involves the feds — but he loves it when practiced by the state of Texas.
The governor championed nine measures aimed at usurping authority of cities and counties, including bills to weaken land-use rules, eliminate local laws on cellphone use by drivers, and water down protections of heritage trees. Most measures failed, including a bill authorizing the state — not local governments — to regulate bathrooms for transgender Texans.
If looking for lessons, let’s remember that hurricanes and other natural disasters show that the federal government is necessary and relevant and still does big things.