FactCheck: Cruz wrong on Sandy relief

Storm Relief Republican Bad Blood
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) in Corpus Christi, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017.

Sen. Ted Cruz wrongly claimed that a 2013 Hurricane Sandy relief bill was “filled with pork and unrelated spending,” estimating that “two-thirds of what was spent in that bill had little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose state was heavily affected by Sandy, called that claim “an absolute falsehood” and then accused Cruz of repeating “reprehensible lies.”

We wouldn’t use the “L” word, but we do find that at least two-thirds of the bill was related to Hurricane Sandy — the opposite of what Cruz said.

Cruz is now dealing with hurricane relief efforts in his home state of Texas, after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25 as a category 4 storm. In the days since, the storm has dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of Houston. There are at least 30 confirmed or suspected deaths due to the storm, reports the New York Times.

The Washington Post Fact Checker looked at Cruz’s claim and found little in the Sandy relief bill that could be considered pork-barrel spending, or “local members of Congress spending on their pet projects,” as Cruz also said.

Cruz’s office later told the Post that the senator was referring to non-emergency spending in the bill, not pork, when he used the two-thirds figure. And a Cruz spokesperson also told us: “When regions face serious disasters causing extensive damage, the federal government has an obligation to assist with assets to address the emergency. Sen. Cruz strongly supports this role of government, but emergency bills should not be used for non-emergency spending and that unfortunately is what made up nearly 70% of the $50.5 billion HR 152 bill.”

But that’s not what the senator said — in two TV interviews. Several readers have asked us to assess whether the Sandy relief bill largely had little or nothing to do with the storm, some citing Cruz as the reason for their question.

The Texas senator was asked about his previous opposition to a disaster relief bill for Sandy, a storm that made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., in late October 2012.

Cruz, NBC News, Aug. 28: I and a number of others enthusiastically and emphatically supported hurricane relief for Sandy. Hurricane relief and disaster relief has been a vital federal role for a long, long time and it should continue. The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.

Cruz, CNN, Aug. 28: Now, there were a number of us who were concerned that that particular bill became a $50 billion bill filled with pork and unrelated spending that wasn’t hurricane relief. It was simply local members of Congress spending on their pet projects. And two-thirds of what was spent in that bill had little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.

We consulted a detailed report on the funding in the legislation by the Congressional Research Service in February 2013. We found that at least $35 billion of the $50.5 billion provided by the bill was related to Sandy — that’s 69 percent of the bill.

We identified nearly another $10 billion that was for mitigation efforts to limit damage from future storms. That left nearly $6 billion uncategorized, because it was either unclear whether all of the funds were specifically directed to Sandy-affected areas, or the money indeed went to other disaster efforts.

We realize there are judgment calls to be made in this exercise, but we followed the CRS report’s descriptions of the purposes of the funding. Several items we left uncategorized are described as being “for necessary expenses related to the consequences of Hurricane Sandy” in the legislation, such as salaries and expenses for government agencies. But our calculation ended up being similar to a big-picture estimate from Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ellis, whose group criticized the bill at the time for some of the funding items, estimated for FactCheck.org that about $30 billion of the $50 billion was Sandy-related, or about 60 percent of the bill. His estimate was based on some of the major elements of the bill, not the entire bill.

While Cruz claimed the bulk of the legislation had little, or nothing, to do with Sandy, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, also of Texas, went too far in the other direction. He said this about a Hurricane Harvey relief bill on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Aug. 30: “I hope that it will be a clean bill that only affects disaster-related things, as the Superstorm Sandy bill did back then.”

That’s misleading. One could make the argument that nearly all of the Sandy bill included “disaster-related-things,” but not Sandy-related. Just as one could make the argument that there were non-emergency items in the bill.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that publishes an annual “pig book” on pork-barrel spending, supported the general idea that there was non-emergency spending in the Sandy relief legislation.

“It is hard to state definitively how much of the Sandy relief appropriation was either non-emergency or unrelated to the storm, but every emergency supplemental spending bill has contained such expenditures,” CAGW President Tom Schatz said in a statement to FactCheck.org. “Beyond the political wrangling over the definition of ‘storm-related’ needs, the funding bill for Sandy had weak and under-funded taxpayer safeguards. Even if a project had some relationship to the storm, there was no way of verifying whether those dollars were spent effectively or in a time-sensitive fashion. However, there is ample documentation of Sen. Cruz’s general assertion: Emergency spending bills are filled with unrelated spending due to its must-pass nature.”

Cruz could have said he thought the Sandy relief legislation included too many non-emergency items. That’s fair enough, and his opinion. But he was wrong to specifically say two-thirds of the bill “had nothing to do with Sandy,” or “little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.”