By Susan Milligan
Ronald Reagan, the 1980s embodiment of ruthless budget-cutting or fiscal sanity – depending on which political party one was in – summed up the Republican view of government in a single, oft-quoted sentence.
“I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” the former president said at an August 1986 press conference.
The remark has been repeated by small-government conservatives as a pithy explanation of Americans’ rejection of government bureaucracy, big spending and meddling. The federal government in particular, conservative Republicans have long argued, is not the answer to people’s problems, especially if the answer includes spending taxpayers’ money.
But in fact, Reagan was merely explaining why he was doing the opposite. With American farmers struggling, the Reagan administration moved to provide price supports and other assistance to help them. The agriculture industry needed to be independent, Reagan said, but until that happened, the government needed to “act compassionately and responsibly.”
The ideological road to shrinking the role and reach of government tends to take a detour when disaster hits, as it has several times during President Joe Biden’s term. COVID-19, wildfires and, more recently, two back-to-back, devastating hurricanes have led Biden to push several massive spending packages through Congress. Separate aid to hurricane-hit areas is also on its way.
And yet, prominent Republicans haven’t put the big-spender criticism aside as they seek to wrest control of both chambers of Congress next month and shut down the cash flow. They’ve slammed Biden for his spending and voted against bills including disaster aid – all the while demanding cash for their states and districts.
That’s not to say Republicans are against spending taxpayer money on their priorities. The Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as Star Wars, was a pet project of the Reagan administration and cost $30 billion before it was scrapped. The last two budgets put forth by Donald Trump called for a combined $7 billion for his favored wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Cognitive dissonance. There’s a lot of that,” says University of North Florida political science professor and pollster Michael Binder, explaining how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, could vote against aid to 2012 Hurricane Sandy victims in the Northeast when he was a congressman but ask for federal help now so his state can recover from Hurricane Ian.
The fact that others get aid (the Sandy aid package passed anyway, despite some GOP opposition) justifies the ask from lawmakers like Republican DeSantis, Binder says.
“He can look at this and say, ‘I’ve got to get mine. It may come from a bloated federal government, but everyone else is getting assistance. I want mine, too,’” Binder says.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, for example, recently voted against a spending package that included a provision freeing up $18.8 billion for federal disaster aid that would help his Hurricane Ian-ravaged home state. The following week, Gaetz made a snippy request for cash on Twitter.
“Dear Congress: On behalf of my fellow Florida Man in grave need of assistance. … Just send us like half of what you sent Ukraine. Signed, Your Fellow Americans,” Gaetz wrote.
His Sunshine State colleague and fellow Republican, Sen. Rick Scott, also voted against the broader spending bill. But Scott, in a statement this week, pleaded with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, to reconvene the Senate to get a “robust Hurricane Ian supplemental aid package passed,” saying he “will do everything in my power as a United States senator” to make it happen.
Florida’s senior Republican in the chamber, Sen. Marco Rubio, wasn’t present for the larger spending package – a continuing resolution that kept the government running – but said he would reject any funding package that included spending for “pork projects” and “other things.”
“We are capable in this country, in the Congress, of voting for disaster relief for key – after key events like this without using it as a vehicle or a mechanism for people to load it up with stuff that’s unrelated to the storm,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Rubio voted against a package with aid to Sandy victims – for the same reason, saying he wanted a “clean” measure that didn’t include extraneous spending. (Rubio did vote in favor of a more targeted spending package for Sandy victims.)
But don’t expect Florida voters to punish the GOP lawmakers at the polls, experts say.
After all, the aid was OK’d despite the GOP “no” votes, and “if people ultimately get their checks, it doesn’t matter,” says Neil Malhotra, a political economist at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
As for accepting cash from an administration GOPers accuse of overspending, “historically, we’ve seen that hurricane aid is put in sort of a different category than welfare spending, or spending on student loan debt relief,” Malhotra says. While a hurricane is an “act of God,” when it comes to other financial needs like student loan debt, “there’s a belief that you caused that situation for yourself.”
And disasters tend to blur the ideological divides on government spending, says John Halpin, co-director of politics and elections at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“Despite long-standing concerns about corruption and mismanagement, Americans across the board expect and want the federal government to step in to take care of important national needs,” Halpin says. “During a time of crisis, like the aftermath of a hurricane or other natural disaster, there are no demands for ‘small government.’ ”
Democrats point out, however, that it’s not just emergency aid for natural disasters Republicans have opposed, then later happily accepted. The imperiled majority party has even created a website where they list Republicans who voted against the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure law or government spending bills – then sent out press releases crowing about the local projects those bills included for their districts.
And while Republicans attack Biden and vulnerable Democrats for the party’s big-ticket legislation, Biden has sought to turn that Reaganesque argument against them.
Scott, who also heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, penned a policy memo in which he says that all government programs should be up for re-approval every five years as a way to keep spending from spiraling out of control.
Biden has waved that document at events to accuse Scott of putting popular programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the chopping block.
But any aid that comes to Florida will likely help any Sunshine State pol who asked for it – no matter what their voting records are, says Jeffery Jenkins, professor of public policy, political science and law at the University of Southern California.
“People have short memories when it comes to this stuff,” Jenkins says. “You can talk about ideology all you want. But when the hurricane hits, and you’re underwater, literally, you need help. You don’t care where it comes from.”
Florida lawmakers, it appears, are ready to take the money – even if it comes from the dreaded government.