WASHINGTON — At their convention, Republican leaders are taking the stage to push for less government and accuse President Barack Obama of profligate spending. About 500 miles away, under threat from a hurricane, Republicans welcomed federal government aid and at least one GOP governor accused Obama of being miserly with the help.
The chance occurrence of a political convention and a Gulf State emergency unfolding in split-screen real time is creating a clash between rhetoric and reality. The calls for fiscal discipline echoing the convention hall in Tampa, Fla., aren't reverberating in drenched and wind-whipped Louisiana or Mississippi.
The contrast illustrates one the sharpest conundrums facing a nation of giant budget deficits. Reducing the size of government sounds good until someone feels the pinch.
Obama issued disaster declarations this week for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of the now downgraded Tropical Storm Isaac, guaranteeing federal emergency aid in designated counties. And the federal government has deployed manpower and equipment, such as Air Force Reserve "Hurricane Hunters" to conduct aerial reconnaissance on the storm and Federal Emergency Management Agency teams to help with logistics and provide other assistance.
Officials had no estimate of how much had already been spent on the effort. Altogether, the government's federal disaster fund has about $1.5 billion available.
In Tampa, the threat posed by Isaac was certainly not lost on conventioneers. The Republican Party delayed the gathering for a day because of the storm and from the dais speakers offered prayers for those in Isaac's path and wished them Godspeed. But the government's response to the storm and its expenditure of taxpayer dollars played out in sharp juxtaposition to the persistent calls for smaller government and criticism of Obama for presiding over an increase in the national debt.
"With $5 trillion in debt added over the last four years, we have no other option but to make the hard choices, cut federal spending and fundamentally reduce the size of government," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
Certainly no Republican suggested that the federal government had no role in helping states in an emergency. Indeed, GOP budget hawks often single out national security and public safety as essential government functions. And as Obama declared emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi and federal agencies mobilized in the face of Isaac's landfall, Gulf Coast states and their Republican officials welcomed government assistance. That's in addition to billions spent by the federal government upgrading the levee system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"It's important and it's money well spent, not just for us locally but for national assets like the ports and oil and gas production," Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana told the Los Angeles Times.
Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, wanted even more from the federal government.
After Obama signed an emergency declaration for the state, Jindal said it fell short of the help he was requesting. Jindal said he wanted more Louisiana parishes covered and urged Obama to have the federal government reimburse state and local government agencies for storm preparation efforts.
Vitter on Wednesday weighed in with his own letter to Obama echoing Jindal's request.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm. But Jindal stood by his demand. "We learned from past experiences, you can't just wait," he said. "You've got to push the federal bureaucracy."
Such aid might have been harder to come by had Romney's running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, had his way. Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, earlier this year tried to eliminate $10 billion a year in disaster spending. Instead, Ryan proposed that when emergencies arise, Congress pay for the disaster costs by cutting from elsewhere in the budget. Ryan lost after his own party leaders balked. But he had support from many tea party backed Republicans.
"The rhetoric would make you believe that a major portion of the government is designed to take care of Democratic constituencies and Democratic priorities," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "The truth is that most of government is made up of programs that we all depend on and many of us depend very heavily on, and the Republicans turn out to be even more dependent in many instances than Democrats. The states that are targets for hurricanes are generally not blue states."
Vitter aide Luke Bolar said federal spending on natural disasters isn't an example of fiscal indiscipline. "People who object haven't lived through a hurricane and what the local and municipal governments have to go through," Bolar said. "It's not like a bridge to nowhere."