Now is not the time for drama, Congress

The Observer editorial board

Red-state Republicans made a mistake when they decided to prioritize cutting spending instead of immediately authorizing federal funds to help states hurt by Hurricane Sandy in 2013. But those Republicans appear ready to do the right thing in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

That’s good. This month will bring several tests for Congress and the Trump administration, and Americans simply can’t afford politics as usual.

In addition to helping millions of Americans caught in Harvey’s wake, the debt ceiling must be raised in September, and the government needs to be funded to avoid a shutdown. Money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health care for low-income children, including in North Carolina, must be reauthorized.

That’s why legislators heading back to Washington from the August recess must resist the urge to re-litigate past political battles – even if they have every right to have felt slighted after Sandy – and take their cues from everyday Americans who have avoided political gamesmanship while trying to help others in the aftermath of Harvey.

Fortunately, the storm seems to have given Congress the right kind of focus. Republicans are signaling that the votes are there to pass a relief package for Harvey, even though it surely will cost tens of billions of dollars. Republican leaders also seem to understand that shutting down the government over a debt ceiling dispute would be disastrous, both politically and for the millions who are counting on a functional government during the recovery from Harvey.

For similar political reasons, breaching that debt ceiling should also be off the table. It could cause significant economic havoc and actually make deficit and debt problems worse because of the extra, automatic spending needed to respond to that upheaval.

None of which has stopped members of Congress in the past from regularly threatening a shutdown – and occasionally going through with it, at least until public pushback helps them regain their senses. But we hope that as leaders of both parties arrive back to work this week, they understand what little appetite Americans will have for adding man-made political drama to the very real challenges that Harvey has brought.

Residents of the Carolinas, in the heart of the hurricane zone, are no strangers to the urgency required to properly respond to a natural disaster. We’ve seen the devastating power of winds from storms such as Hurricane Hugo and floods of biblical proportions like those Hurricane Floyd brought us. They are all-hands-on-deck moments during which petty, or even important, political differences are rightly forced into the background.

There are times to take hardline political stances. In our form of democracy, sometimes that’s the only way much needed progress on complex issues becomes reality. But there are times to put pet causes aside and singularly focus on the emergency at hand. With the aftermath of Harvey, we have another chance to re-establish that principle. And we must.