Menendez Reminds Republicans of the Duty to Help Americans in Times of Crisis

Menendez Reminds Republicans of the Duty to Help Americans in Times of Crisis

“We need to stop dividing our country into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ when it comes to fundamental human needs.”

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez delivered the following remarks tonight on the Senate floor:

“I rise today to talk about one of the most important responsibilities we have -- the responsibility to help every community in a time of crisis.  When Sandy struck, more than 100 people lost their lives; 8.5 million customers lost power; more than 650,000 homes were damaged; and 40,000 more were severely damaged or destroyed.  Hundreds of thousands of businesses were forced to close – with a $65 billion price tag in economic loss in 13 states – up and down the East Coast.

“Unfortunately, emergency relief languished for weeks as some of my colleagues on the other side actually debated the value of helping others.  The Junior Senator from Louisiana, wouldn’t vote for Sandy funding because it wasn’t paid for – now he’s found Jesus and seeks funding for flooding in Louisiana – and I would say rightfully so.  The fact is, we can’t have a disaster policy that says blue states have to pay for disasters, purple states have to partially pay, and no pay is needed for red states.  We shouldn’t be playing politics with disaster funding. When we do, real people suffer.

“But, when it came to Sandy, a Party that never has a second thought about giving billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Oil, never saw a tax break for millionaires they didn’t like -- didn’t step up to help families recover from one of the most devastating and ferocious coastal storms in history. The decision to turn what should be a fundamental responsibility of government into a political calculation -- is not how this nation responds to disasters. But unfortunately, the unthinkable is becoming all too common.

“We saw it this summer with the fight over providing Zika funding – which should have been a no-brainer.  Alarm bells have been ringing for months. But instead of being proactive and preparing an adequate and appropriate response, Republicans chose to poison our efforts with right-wing ideological policy riders that prevented us from appropriately addressing this issue.

“So, thanks to the Majority, we did nothing while 20,000 American citizens in Puerto Rico contracted the virus. We did nothing while the virus spread to the mainland, forcing the CDC to take the virtually unprecedented step of issuing a travel advisory in the continental United States -- not some third world country – but in one of our nation’s largest and most vibrant cities, Miami. 

“Yet even after all of this, once again, we did nothing.  Why? Once again three words come to mind as they have for the last eight years: Republican political obstructionism.

“Now, my friends on the other side seem to have moved past their state of suspended-political-animation and dropped their rigid, ideological opposition to the Zika funding.  But there are still serious issues that have a major impact on children’s health that we have not acted on -- namely, the lead crisis confronting not only those in Flint, but those in our schools in New Jersey.

“It took three full months for the victims of Sandy to get relief. It has taken months for this Congress to act against the clear threat of Zika.  And here we are one year after we learned about Flint.  And yet, the Republicans in Congress have done what they do best—nothing.

“I’ve even heard the lame counter-argument: ‘Well, Flint was a man-made disaster, not a natural disaster—so we don’t have an obligation to help – others.’  Seriously? We don’t have an obligation as a nation to help others? I reject that argument.

“The federal government always has an obligation to help a community facing a crisis -- whether leading the initial response to the BP oil spill, responding to wildfires, superstorms, tornadoes, floods or manmade disasters like the failure of the levees in Hurricane Katrina – we were there as a nation.  The question should not be manmade versus natural disaster -- it should be the relief of human suffering in any disaster.

“Last week, one of my colleagues dismissed the crisis in Flint as ‘other people’s grief.’  That’s a stunning statement, shocking in its blatant disregard for our fundamental mission to protect every American. In this Chamber there is no ‘other people’s grief.’  We are all Americans – one nation – one community – indivisible -- and in a community, there is no room to brush off a crisis as other people’s problem.

“In the case of Flint, ‘other people’ are 100,000 fellow Americans -- he majority of whom are African-American, 40 percent of whom are living in poverty -- one in ten of whom are unemployed.  The so-called ‘other people’ are children facing a lifetime of challenges, poisoned by a substance that we’ve known is toxic for decades.  The ‘other people’ are parents, whose hearts are heavy with that thought that one of life’s most basic needs—clean water to drink—is being denied to their children. 

“The ‘other people’ are community advocates that have spent the last year knocking on tens of thousands of doors, trying to get the latest information to their neighbors about the ongoing health crisis. The ‘other people’ were those whose health has been threatened by a local government that was more concerned about saving a buck than protecting their residents.

“And now their federal government is failing them – by callous dismissals that these are ‘other people’s problems’… not ours, as Americans – but theirs, and they’re on their own.  That’s not the America I know.  The America I know is one that stands together in times of crisis. 

“We see it all the time in the aftermath of a disaster – whether it’s first responders running into the burning towers on the morning of September 11th .  Whether it’s neighbors offering a place to sleep and a home-cooked meal to those whose homes were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy.  Whether it’s the hundreds of people who lined up to donate blood after the Orlando shooting.  In times of crisis, Americans stand together. We don’t dismiss cries for help as the problems of ‘others.’

“We’ve heard talk of the urgency of providing aid to the people of Louisiana in the wake of the flooding, and I agree – but we cannot let the people of Flint be an afterthought.

“Now, it sounds like the Majority Leader is thinking about removing the disaster aid that will help Louisiana, just to prove a political point.  Think about that – he’d hang communities out to dry because some in his party don’t want to look out for Flint.  If the Majority Leader decides to withhold disaster assistance to both Flint and Louisiana this would be cynical stunt that would hurt real people, and frankly, we’re better than that.  We cannot turn what should be a question of the basic health and safety of our citizens into a political calculation.

“But unfortunately, the Republican’s Continuing Resolution doesn’t see it that way. It focuses on corporate giveaways at the expense of families, businesses, communities trying to recover from a disaster. And while our Republican colleagues are fighting over which communities are more ‘worthy’ of disaster relief – a calculation I do not understand -- they are also shamelessly pushing policy riders that favor corporations over investors, constituents, and the American public at large. They pat themselves on the back for finding funding to address flooding in Louisiana, while quietly working behind closed doors to shield the pathways of dark money in politics.

“So let me take a moment and tell our constituents what they won’t see in their Republican Senators’ press releases. They won’t see any mention of a policy rider intended to block the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring companies to disclose their political spending.  And here’s why that’s so important: The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United fundamentally changed our nation’s campaign finance laws by opening the floodgates for unlimited and unchecked corporate spending on campaign ads, federal and state law advocacy efforts, and many other methods of political communication. In the 2012 federal elections, outside groups spent more than $1 billion, with much of it funneled through trade associations and non-profits with minimal disclosure.

“And in the 2016 cycle, which I don’t need to remind my colleagues is far from over, outside groups have already spent $790 million. For six long years, companies have had free rein to solidify their influence in politics and maximize their impact on elections. And with no corresponding requirement to disclose how this money is being spent, there is simply no way to know if corporations are spending money to defund Social Security and Medicare, dismantle environmental protections, undermine education programs, or eviscerate Wall Street Reform – including taking down the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“Think about that, the Republican Party is trying to make it harder for the American people to know how much money is being poured into efforts that hurt consumers. 

“In the past weeks, Wells Fargo perpetrated a huge scam on their customers, costing account holders millions of dollars and creating over two million fraudulent accounts.  The CFPB was instrumental in uncovering the scam and levying the largest fine in its history. So here we are just two weeks later sticking in riders to hide dark money from shareholders. This is exactly the type of dark money that attacks the CFPB, and the American people deserve to know who is funding those attacks. The significance of this should not be understated.  Ultimately, this is about silencing the voice of hard-working American families in favor of amplifying the speech and magnifying the influence of corporations. And unfortunately, this is all too emblematic of my Republican colleagues’ approach to lawmaking. 

“When corporations ask Republicans to jump, they say ‘how high?’  When big banks ask Republicans to roll back critical Wall Street reforms, they say ‘how far?’ When the oil industry asks Republicans for a tax subsidy, they say ‘how much?’ It’s shameless, shameless. Clearly, my Republican colleagues are defiantly turning their backs on consumers.

“We cannot continue down this obstructionist path paved with the shattered remains of our long-held willingness to help each other in times of crisis. If we continue down this path, when Republicans are in charge, no assistance would be provided if the East Coast suffered another superstorm -- because those are blue states? It would mean that a slow-moving infrastructure crisis in an inner city would be ignored as “other people’s grief.”  It would mean that – when Democrats are in charge, no relief would be provided for tornadoes in Oklahoma, or floods in Kentucky – because those are red states. That is not what we Democrats would do and it is not – at the end of the day – the way to govern. We need to stop dividing our country into “us” versus “them” when it comes to fundamental human needs.

“In this election season, let’s remember that we are all Americans, with common goals and shared values. Let’s focus on doing right by the American people, rather than telling them that we can solve all of our problems if we just turn the clock back to a better time, and blame someone else -- “those people – the others” for our problems. That is not good politics, it is not good government, and it is not who we are as a nation or a people.”