Hooks: Texas delegation loses at Harvey recovery
Let’s say for a moment that over Christmas, you got a very bad gift - the most boring board game in existence, Texas Congressional Delegation. In it, you are a team captain, manipulating your pieces - Ted Cruz and Henry Cuellar and Louie Gohmert, et al - to do good for the state in D.C.
Though it might not be a stimulating subject for a role-playing game, it is tremendously important, and it created the place you live in. At the beginning of the 20th century, Texans were isolated, uneducated dirt farmers. A significant part of why that changed, from the construction of dams that provided electricity to the Hill Country to the space program to our high-tech sector, is federal help, obtained by the state’s representatives in Washington.
Your role in the game is to continue that. The state needs many things right now, and some of them are quite complicated, like changes to immigration and trade policy. But your first task is quite easy. Last year, one of the most expensive natural disasters in American history hit Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country and a key economic engine for the state. If Houston recovers poorly, the state suffers. And many people will suffer - more than 1 in 5 Texans lives in the Houston area.
This is a no-brainer: Open the federal spigot and let relief money pour in. Then, keep it pouring, because Houston’s infrastructure needs considerable upgrades before the next storm. This is what good congressional delegations do - they fight for a piece of the pie for their constituents. After Hurricane Sandy, both parties worked together to airdrop cash into New Jersey and New York - funding that included needed infrastructure improvements for areas vulnerable to rising sea levels and bolstered federal agencies involved in storm warning and response.
It’s also hard to think of an easier task for you to accomplish. The first thing that ought to be working in your favor is that D.C. is completely controlled by the Republican Party, and Texas is by far the most important Republican state. Texas has been unceasingly loyal to the GOP for a quarter of a century. Texas congressmen and women are ideally situated in every wing of the party, which means that you should hypothetically be able to get just about anything you want.
One senator, John Cornyn, is a veteran lawmaker who has held senior leadership positions, and the other, Cruz, has good ties with the party’s right. The House is filled with senior Texas Republicans who’ve been there for years and know where every bathroom is in the Capitol, and quite a few of them are now retiring, which means they have an opportunity to go the extra distance.
So, shoot the moon. Disaster relief should be a breeze - let’s build that Ike Dike. Summon up some scratch for Houston’s creaky reservoir system. Get Mayor Sylvester Turner’s shopping list and the state Legislature’s and load up. In a previous generation, that might have been how it worked out.
Instead, in the real world, everything’s getting fumbled, and the state has been consistently disrespected by the Trump administration and the rest of Congress. Texas originally asked for $61 billion of disaster aid, as a starting point. The Trump administration proposed only $44 billion - to be split among Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. It was a slap in the face for the state, compounded by Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders blaming Texas for not coming up with more money in-state. Even Gov. Greg Abbott characterized the Texas congressional delegation as “let(ting) themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”
In December, the House passed an $81 billion relief package, still split between several disaster areas. The bill was seen as a defeat for Texas, but Abbott nonetheless expressed hope the bill would pass the Senate by the end of Christmas break. It did not. Some hoped the funding would pass as part of last week’s budget talks, but it got kicked out. It remains unclear when it will come back again.
It would be surprising if Congress didn’t pass Harvey relief at all, and it’s possible it passes this week. What’s truly discouraging about this fight has been how much the Texas delegation has had to fight to meet this, the lowest possible bar. If it takes three full months of palace intrigue to deliver meager hurricane aid, it seems extraordinarily doubtful Texas’ current representatives will ever be able to muster the political will it takes to make the substantive, wish-list investments in Texas that the state needs.
I’m writing this column using electricity generated by the Lower Colorado River Authority dams, the result of massive federal investment in the early 20th century. The money spent on those dams, a boon obtained by much drama and more than a little corruption in Austin and Washington, wasn’t necessarily sensible or “efficient,” in our modern sense. It was the result of politicians looking at a poor and benighted place and imagining what could be. The politicians we have now seem barely capable of managing what is.
But more than that, Texas is being treated to a poor return on its investment in the Republican Party. The state has been the foundation of Republican presidential bids for years, and so with it, the reason for the party’s control of the Supreme Court, even more crucial. If this is what we’re getting for it, we ought to be embarrassed. Or they ought to be. Or both of us.
Hooks is an Austin-based writer.