‘Congress’ Not to Blame for FEMA Feud

New York Times channels misplaced 'pox-on-both-their-houses' anger

A memo to reporters who write about federal policy disputes: “Congress” is not an actor. “Congress” has no mind. “Congress” does not make decisions, and “Congress” does not cast votes. If you are writing about some important legislative event that has or has not occurred, “Congress” should probably not be the subject of many sentences.

Rather, “Congress” is a place in Washington, D.C. where individual elected officials gather to argue about what the government should do. And those individual elected officials—who are organized for purposes of collective action as Democrats and Republicans—cast votes, make decisions, possess agency over their actions, and bear responsibility for their choices.

This little rant was inspired by a story on the front page of today’s New York Times, “Flood Victims Getting Fed Up With Congress.” The article movingly portrays the suffering in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, where homes were destroyed by recent flooding. And it no doubt accurately portrays the frustration expressed by residents upon learning that further federal disaster relief could be caught up in a fight on Capitol HiIl. (The article also conflates normal post-disaster dissatisfaction with FEMA with the greater, future consequences that might follow if Congress doesn’t allot these funds.) As an indication of how the Pennsylvanians’ view their plight, the Times quotes a homeowner who says, “They should be put in a corner and take a timeout and start working together as a team. I’m so sick of hearing Republicans this and Democrats that.”

The problem is that the story doesn’t simply relay this “pox on both their houses” sentiment; it channels it. And as a result, it fails to explain why this standoff is happening.

Here’s the situation in Washington: the federal government faces a shutdown unless majorities in both houses of Congress authorize further spending by Sept. 30. At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is about to run out of funds for disaster relief. There’s general agreement in Congress on a resolution that would keep the government running, but disagreement on how to handle FEMA’s disaster funds.

Republicans, who control the House, generally want to allocate about $3.7 billion for that purpose, but only if they can impose offsetting reductions of about $1.6 billion on clean-energy programs. The idea seems to be twofold: establish the new principle that the provision of emergency aid is an opportunity to force budget cuts; and target “green” subsidies, which Republicans don’t like and which, in the wake of Solyndra, seem like a weak point for the Obama administration. Democrats, who control the Senate, generally want to allocate about $6.9 billion for disaster aid, and, in keeping with past practice, to make no offsetting cuts. There’s a substantive dispute about budget practices here, and until the disagreement is resolved, there’ll be no help for the people of Wyoming County.

Some of this stuff makes it into the Times story. The overall thrust of the article, though, evokes either a unitary, dysfunctional legislature—as in the lead, which declares that “Congress is bickering over disaster aid”—or partisans precisely paired in their pettiness—as in a section near the end, where the article all but openly mocks Republican and Democratic talking points, and then portentously declares that “hard-working people in this part of the country expect a bit more from their government.”

That probably does reflect how people of Wyoming County feel. But the article would have been improved by ditching that line in favor of one noting that the Republicans’ insistence on offsets—which seems, more than the dollar figures involved, to be the sticking point—would represent a change in policy. Whether or not you think the GOP approach is wise, this standoff, like many others of late, results from a choice Republicans have made to force the issue. And it’s impossible to make clear to readers what’s happening here without reporting that.

Look: the political press should absolutely devote more time to reporting on the experiences, voices, and values of “ordinary Americans,” and connecting what’s happening in Washington to their lives. That’s what the Times is trying to do here, and kudos to the paper for that.

But there’s a danger in this approach, which is that ordinary Americans tend to have a lousy grasp of how government works. They might, as one flood victim the Times spoke to did, see a tradeoff between parks and playgrounds (a municipal service) and disaster aid (a federal service). They might have no idea how the government spends its money. And they might think of “Congress” as a single entity that just can’t get its act together.

All of this is understandable—most people have better things to worry about, and besides, representative democracy has never depended on every citizen delving into OMB reports and government org charts. But it does mean that when press accounts simply mirror public frustration with the government, they may not meet their responsibility to explain the source of that frustration—and that doesn’t do the public any good.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.