Anyone following Arkansas politics knew this punch was coming. It was only a matter of time. In fact, we got a sneak preview just a few weeks ago when U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., came to town at the invitation of a fellow Democratic senator, Mark Pryor.
But simply knowing you’re about to get hit doesn’t make it hurt any less. The best political operatives will tell you there are some punches you can’t dodge.
Sometimes, all you can do is try to stay on your feet.
A Strong Blow
The figurative political punch I’m referring to is the latest TV advertisement by the Democratic Party of Arkansas (DPA), called “Five” in honor of the five times they say Pryor's Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, voted “against disaster aid.” While the ad lands a hard blow, it does so courtesy of some “creative” (1) blurring of the facts.
The ad, which you can watch here, opens with aerial footage of the damage caused by the April 27 tornadoes that ravaged parts of Pulaski, Faulkner, and White counties. The ad uses that visual to connect the disaster with the five times that Cotton voted “against relief designed to help people recover from tornados and floods.” (2) It also aims to paint Cotton as an outlier in the Arkansas congressional delegation, the rest of which voted in favor of legislation allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to borrow $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims resulting from Hurricane Sandy. (3)
Without question it’s a hard-hitting ad designed to draw on emotion to convince voters that Cotton stood idly by when his fellow Arkansans were in need. And it’s consistent with previous attacks from the DPA, the Pryor for Senate campaign, and outside groups like Patriot Majority USA, which try to paint Cotton as unsympathetic, lacking in compassion, and uncaring about people.
But the truth of the ad gets fuzzy fast, particularly by implying that Cotton repeatedly opposed disaster relief funding aimed at helping victims of the April 27 tornadoes here in Arkansas, which of course he didn’t. Sure, the ad doesn’t come right out and say Cotton voted against disaster relief for Arkansas storm victims, but the implication of the ad is clear. In fact, it’s only through the small print at the bottom of the ad that we’re able to learn that the “five times” Cotton voted “against disaster relief” all occurred months (4) before the April 27 Arkansas tornadoes, and that four of the votes specifically addressed disaster assistance for Hurricane Sandy victims in the Northeast. The fifth one - and arguably the DPA's best argument - was Cotton's vote against the $1.012 trillion 2014 Omnibus Spending bill, which included $6.2 billion for FEMA disaster relief. Had that been the sole argument for the DPA's attack the ad wouldn't have been such a stretch, as techinically speaking in this case Cotton did vote against FEMA disaster relief funding. However, one can't ignore that Cotton also voted for FEMA's disaster relief fund - at the same level of $6.2 billion - when that legislation (H.R. 2217) was passed through the House via the normal appropriations process.
That last part of the ad, which references recovery from tornados and floods, is how the DPA was able to link the two natural disasters and their subsequent recovery efforts – despite the fact that they occurred 20 months and more than 1,000 miles apart.
This kind of obfuscation is nothing new in the world of political campaigns – in fact, it happens all the time.
Voting records are fair game, and every politician knows the potential exists for their votes to be used against them, “creatively” or not. It certainly stands to reason that Cotton, as a matter of politics, could have taken the politically safe route and avoided this eventual campaign vulnerability by voting in favor of the five Hurricane Sandy relief bills referenced in the ad. After all, they all passed.
So why didn’t he?
For Cotton, it seems that voting “no” wasn’t about opposing disaster aid for Hurricane Sandy victims as some would have us believe, but was instead about taking a stand against Congress' habit of ignoring the budgeting process and the unchecked practice of weighing down important legislation with pet projects that has for years helped push our country further and further into debt.
Hitching A Ride
Check this out. Here’s some of the projects tacked on to the many Hurricane Sandy disaster aid packages:
This is an Opinion
- $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses
- $118 million for AMTRAK
- $2 million for Smithsonian roof repairs
- $50 million for the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund
- $2 billion for federal highways (nationwide)
- $16 billion in community development funding for use in 47 of the 50 states (5)
These projects are only a drop in the bucket when it comes to the spending free for all that accompanies these kinds of “emergency” spending bills. (6) For lawmakers, this practice of hitching a ride is more expedient than following the traditional budgeting process, making it easier for members to get funding for their own pet projects and questionable programs that might otherwise face closer scrutiny.
As you can probably guess, this is not a new phenomenon. Congress did the same thing during the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, funding non-emergency-related pet projects that were hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from Gulf areas devastated by the storm and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. And they’ve undoubtedly done so countless other times as well.
Drawing The Line
Some will say that programs added to these relief bills were important to the wellbeing of our country and worthy of being funded. But if so, then what’s the harm in putting them through the normal budgetary process and evaluating each of them on their merit?
Others will argue that regardless of the additional spending, there’s simply no excuse for voting against disaster relief spending in any form. After all, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. If this were an isolated case, I might be compelled to go along with that.
But the problem is that this practice has become the rule in Congress, not the exception. A few million here, a couple of billion there, and pretty soon we’ve added another trillion dollars to Uncle Sam’s credit card.
So perhaps it isn’t that Cotton voted against disaster aid knowing it would empower his political opponents to attack him – but rather his principled stand against business as usual in Washington that’s the real anomaly here. And when you look at it that way, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
(1) “Creative” being a diplomatic way of saying “somewhat misleading.”
(2) “Floods” being the operative term here, but more on that in a bit.
(3) Worth noting that the other members of the AR Congressional delegation did vote against some of the other bills referenced - Crawford (no on three), Griffin (no on two), Womack (no on two) - but Cotton was the only one that opposed all five.
(4) Four of the votes occurred more than a year before the April 27 Arkansas tornadoes.
(5) And Puerto Rico!
(6) If you’re interested in a deeper dive … (PDF)
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(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)