Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) made a series of major missteps when he decided the House GOP would not release federal disaster funds unless it included offsetting spending cuts following a deadly Missouri tornado, a hurricane that hit the east coast, and an earthquake in Virginia.
Though Cantor was roundly criticized for the move, a look back to the 104th Congress revealed the origins of Cantor’s idea: Newt Gingrich.
Less than two months after Gingrich took over as House speaker in 1995, one of his first orders of business was to propose holding off on federal disaster aid unless it was accompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. Gingrich downplayed the long-held system of sending federal relief money to areas stricken by natural disaster without making it contingent on ideologically-driven cuts, telling reporters, “you don’t have this thing of waving a magic wand and saying, ‘Well, this is an emergency.'”
This was not simply a theoretical exercise. When the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing occurred later that year, Gingrich held federal disaster aid hostage unless he received offsetting spending cuts, prompting the Philadelphia Daily News to write that “Even Newt Gingrich must lose a little sleep at the idea of making political hay out of the mini-civil war that struck Oklahoma City.”
The Free Lance-Star from February 11, 1995, has more:
President Clinton last week asked Congress for an extra $4.9 billion in emergency aid to pay for repairs lingering from the Northridge earthquake in Southern California a year ago. He also is seeking an additional $500,000 to repair damage from last month’s record flooding in the state.
Typically, those funds are sent to states under special budget rules that do not require Congress to earmark offsetting cuts.
But that practice, Gingrich said, is about to change.
“We’re going to have to find a way to offset that,” he said.
Gingrich went on to criticize President Clinton for refusing “to suggest where to cut to pay for federal disaster aid.” Not all congressional spending proposals were held to this same standard though. As the Washington Post wrote in July 1996, Gingrich “instructed a House Appropriations panel to earmark an additional $15 million for water projects to boost reelection prospects of Republicans in California, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington state.”
Pork-barrel projects like these were deemed important enough to merit a special earmark, but Gingrich held disaster relief money hostage unless Congress and the president agreed to offsetting spending cuts elsewhere. Sixteen years later, Cantor took up the mantle and used the devastating Joplin tornado, which killed 159 people, to try to extract spending cuts from congressional Democrats.