Rep. Peter King is wrong to pick a fight over Hurricane Harvey aid

  • Rep. Peter King's nasty shot at Senator Ted Cruz was exactly what the nation doesn't need in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
  • It's up to President Trump and others to make sure Harvey aid isn't slowed by too much unneeded spending.
  • Getting this right could go a long way towards healing some of the nation's overall wounds.

The devastation from Hurricane Harvey and its resulting floodwaters is only getting worse right now. Thousands in Texas have already been rescued, and that number is climbing. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is even activating his state's entire National Guard in response to the aftermath of the hurricane. Roughly 12,000 servicemen will be deployed to assist in ongoing search and rescue efforts.

Houston is particularly in danger. The nation's fourth largest city is already dealing with historic flood levels and the National Weather Service says storm force winds will continue through Wednesday.

To say that the nation's logistical and political powers need to be laser-focused on the rescue effort right now is an understatement. But it didn't take long before a politician who should know better decided to inject an ugly and potentially dangerous bit of nastiness into the situation.

That would be Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, who lobbed an unsolicited intramural attack on fellow Republican Ted Cruz with a series of tweets about hurricane aid:

One gets the impression King was just waiting for a major disaster like this to hit Texas, not so much to pat himself on the back for his promised generosity, but to slam Senator Cruz at his state's most vulnerable time over a battle that took place five years ago over aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast hard in 2012.

Here's what happened then.

A $60.4 billion aid bill was filled with items not connected to that particular storm relief effort and many non-essential spending programs that were set to kick in only over several years' time. That prompted several Republicans to oppose it. The exact amount of non Sandy-related money in the bill continues to be a matter of contentious political debate, but even diverse groups like Politifact, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the Club for Growth all found that "billions of dollars" in the bill were not connected to the storm.

King and his fellow outraged New York/New Jersey area politicians, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, should have been outraged at the members of Congress who used their tragedy to grab more money for almost any reason, not people like Cruz.

The bill passed anyway by a 62-36 vote. Each of the 36 senators who voted no, including leading critics like Cruz and Senators John McCain, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, said they strongly supported aid for New York and New Jersey, but didn't support a wasteful blank check to be used for a laundry list of other pet projects.

The measure was unnecessarily endangered by business-as-usual Washington greed. A handful more votes, and opponents could have used the filibuster to delay it even further or kill it even as so many Americans suffered. So the first lesson to be learned from Sandy is not to use a distorted version of history to bash political opponents, it's to make sure that aid gets to those who need it without anyone jeopardizing it with pork or unconnected measures.

Rep. King could have done that simply by tweeting that he will vote to help Texan victims, but he just had to remind everyone of his version of the events of 2012-13. And it's that kind of nastiness that could very well encourage others not to vote for aid to Texas or the next state that gets slammed by a disaster like this in the future.

And here's how President Trump can make a difference once the storm ends and estimates start to pour in on just how much money effected areas will need. The president, who has been on his best Twitter behavior so far, will have the unique opportunity to help the nation avoid the D.C. greed-fest that ensued after Sandy.

He should preemptively tweet and otherwise warn against anything that could delay or jeopardize legitimate aid dollars, and he should keep the pressure on as needed. Regardless of how bad President Trump's relationship is with congressional leaders even in his own party, this is just the kind of bully pulpit work he was born to do.

On the brightest side, you can expect millions of people from all over red and blue America to send money and offer other aid to Texas. They already have.

But when the flood waters have receded and the most serious needs filled, Americans should do what they can to stop politicians from any side to take any more advantage of disasters like this one than they already have. In this bitterly divided and nasty political environment, getting the response to Hurricane Harvey right could go a long way to healing some of the tears in the national fabric right now.

This responsibility is squarely on all of us, but especially President Trump, Senator Cruz, and even people like Congressman King.

Commentary by Jake Novak, senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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