For a week, the eyes of all Americans, from politicians in Washington to private citizens in every state in the nation, have been focused on television sets watching the disaster of Harvey unfold. The scale of the devastation pushed other stories, if not out of sight, at least from center stage. For the moment, we shifted our principal attention from the latest reckless provocation by North Korea (and the administration’s confused and contradictory responses) and from Trump’s jittery preoccupation with the growing tangle he refers to as “this Russia thing.”
It will strike many as odd to “salute” a storm that caused terrible suffering and imposed staggering costs that will be felt for years to come. Yet it does not minimize either one to suggest that Harvey may also have had a positive side, reminding us again of the old adage that “it’s an ill wind that blows no good.”
While Harvey brought images of vast destruction and poignant human suffering, it offered other images as well. Having been immersed for months in political polarization and racial conflicts driving apart communities, friends and families, it was refreshing to see something quite different. We saw law enforcement officers working desperately with other first responders and civilians to save lives and comfort victims. We saw ordinary people reaching out both to their neighbors and to complete strangers, offering help with no regard to their race, ethnicity or legal status. We saw courage, resilience, determination and outright heroism. Even amid the misery and peril, one could not help thinking, at times, “Yes, people determined to work together to help each other. That spirit is what America should be all about.”
Harvey arrived when major challenges were awaiting the return of Congress. Most notably, those challenges included raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget or Continuing Resolution that would decline to fund Trump’s Wall but not provoke a government shutdown. In a sense, Harvey will add to those challenges by imposing a financial burden of many billions of dollars. Yet both the White House and Capitol Hill seem eager to provide generous relief to Texas, and neither appears interested in any showdown, at least for now.
Carl Hulse, writing in the New York Times, described how the political landscape in Washington has changed:
Gone are the confrontational talk of a government shutdown and the brinkmanship over the debt limit. Instead, both Mr. Trump and his putative allies in Congress — many of them professed fiscal hawks — are promising an outpouring of federal aid to begin a recovery and rebuilding effort that will last for years and require tens of billions of dollars, if not substantially more, from Washington.
The storm has utterly transformed the federal fiscal picture.
“This is going to change the whole dynamic for September and, quite frankly, for the Republican establishment for the remainder of the 115th Congress,” said G. William Hoagland, a longtime chief budget adviser to Senate Republicans who is now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The truth of the matter is, they don’t need money to build a wall in Texas, but to rebuild the shoreline in Texas.”
It may be that political confrontations over the debt ceiling and funding (or not funding) the Wall have merely been postponed and will become acute again in December. But perhaps not — if Harvey, and the responses to Harvey, can bring a new spirit to the country and to Washington.
On Thursday, Senator John McCain wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that made no mention of Harvey but seems particularly relevant. McCain described with dismay the prevailing situation in the Congress:
Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.
That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.
It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.
As a solution, McCain made a passionate plea for a return to the “regular order,” the legislative procedure by which committees “do the principal work of crafting legislation and letting the full Senate debate and amend their efforts.” The issues that McCain felt could benefit from that treatment included the budget, immigration, tax reform and infrastructure. Whether McCain has any realistic hope of converting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to that approach is doubtful, but it’s worth the effort. If dealing with Harvey improves the prospects, it will have blown some good indeed.
As a final note, we would add to McCain’s list the matter of climate change and measures to restrain human activities that contribute to global warming. As Republican columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post:
[M]ake no mistake: We are being warned. Storms of the Harvey variety will become not 1-in-1,000-year events but 1-in-100. And then, well, who knows beyond worse-is-coming? The least we can do is exercise our free will — and our reasoning powers — to mitigate the effects of human activities on global warming to the extent possible.
If we don’t, Mr. President, we’re going to need a bigger ark.
Meanwhile, as Scott Pruitt plots a course through the EPA that resembles Sherman’s March to the Sea, one wonders how many Harveys it will take to strip “hoax” from the Republican vocabulary on climate change.