Politics
10:01 pm
Thu September 22, 2011

A Foe Of Big Government Seeks Aid For Joplin

Originally published on Fri September 23, 2011 12:07 pm

Billy Long is a Tea Party stalwart who ran for Congress as a man fed up with Washington.

Long won in a landslide and now represents Joplin, Mo., where he fired up a Tea Party crowd in April pretending to auction off the national debt.

Five weeks later, Long was back in Joplin, this time in the dark and rain, surveying the aftermath of an apocalyptic tornado. And this time, the federal government was his friend.

"FEMA called as soon as I got there and said, 'Congressman Long, we're on the way. We'll have boots on the ground in an hour or two,' " he says. "And I said, 'No you won't; they're already here.' "

What followed, Long says, has been a superb relief effort.

"The president came in, he was great. [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano came in, she's been great," he says. "[House Minority] Leader Pelosi came up to me on the floor, hugged me and said, 'Billy, anything the people of Joplin need they'll have.' "

And that's just what they've gotten: FEMA has spent close to $100 million on the cleanup, and an additional $19 million plus on rent and home repairs. Napolitano was back in Joplin on Thursday, praising Joplin's "can-do attitude" and Long.

"He's worked well with our office, with our shop," she said. "When he was asked about FEMA, to rank it shortly after the fact, on a scale of 1 to 10, he said he'd give it a 12."

Doing It Locally

This kind of talk doesn't square with some of Long's constituents. Bloggers say he's "shredding his Tea Party stripes," drinking the "Potomac Kool-Aid." He's portrayed as just another politician bellying up to the trough.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of this grief for helping tornado-ravaged Joplin has come from ... Joplin.

"Joplin would be, some people would use the phrase, 'the buckle of the Bible Belt,' " says John Putnam, who leads a Tea Party group here. "It's very conservative. I think the bottom line for most of us is that we can do it locally."

Putnam says volunteers, local folks hit by the tornado and tens of thousands of people streaming in from across the country — many evangelical Christians with ties to Joplin's numerous churches — have done most of the work. But Putnam, unlike some in the blogosphere, is willing to give Long a pass.

"I think this is the system we operate under, and as long as we're under this system, it's fine for him to try to maximize FEMA's contribution," he says.

A Sense Of Priority

At a gas station just outside the destruction zone in Joplin, Ed Cryts, a local contractor, says he's grateful for the help and mightily impressed with FEMA, but not with the rest of the government.

"As far as helping people, FEMA has done a good job, but as far as what the people at the top are doing, I'm not too happy," he says.

Long insists the tornado hasn't altered his views, either.

"Budgeting is about priorities," he says, "and you certainly have to prioritize for situations like this."

Long says he's confident that whatever tough choices may have to be made, Uncle Sam's not going to skimp on helping people laid low by a natural disaster.

As for the government, there are still a lot of things Long aims to change, but it's less likely you'll hear him complaining any more about being "fed up."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP: The gridlock in Congress over disaster aid affects Joplin, Missouri, which was hit in May by a tornado. The devastated area is represented on Capitol Hill by Congressman Billy Long. He's a Tea Party favorite who won his seat in November as a man fed up with Washington.

BILLY LONG: Fed up with reckless spending. Fed up with the threat to our values.

INSKEEP: Since the tornado, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent millions of dollars in the congressman's district. And the spending continues. Congressman Long says that's perfectly appropriate, which is leading to questions about whether the abandoned his Tea Party principles. Frank Morris, of member station KCUR, reports.

FRANK MORRIS: Billy Long is a pretty popular guy in Joplin. Last April he fired up a Tea Party crowd there, pretending to auction off the national debt.

LONG: (Unintelligible)

MORRIS: Five weeks later, Long was back in Joplin, this time in the dark, and rain, surveying the aftermath of an apocalyptic tornado. And, this time, the federal government was his friend.

LONG: FEMA called as soon as I got there, and said, Congressman Long, we're on the way. We'll have boots on the ground there in an hour or two. And I said, no you won't, they're already here.

MORRIS: What followed, Long says, has been a superb relief effort.

LONG: The president came in. He was great. Janet Napolitano came in, she's been great. And Leader Pelosi came up to me on the floor and hugged me and said anything people in Joplin need they will have.

MORRIS: And that's just what they've gotten. FEMA has spent close to $100 million just on the cleanup, another 19 million plus on rent and home repairs. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was back in Joplin just yesterday, praising Joplin's can do attitude and Congressman Long.

JANET NAPOLITANO: He's worked well with our office, with our shop. When he was asked about FEMA shortly after the fact, to rank it on a scale of one to 10, he said he would give it a 12.

MORRIS: This kind of talk doesn't square with some of Long's constituents. Bloggers say he's shredding his Tea Party stripes, drinking the Potomac Kool-Aid. He's portrayed as another politician bellying up to the trough. Perhaps surprisingly, some of this grief for helping tornado-ravaged Joplin, has come from Joplin.

JOHN PUTNAM: Joplin would be, some people would use the phrase, the buckle of the Bible Belt. It's very conservative.

MORRIS: John Putnam leads a Tea Party group in these parts.

PUTNAM: I think the bottom line for most of us, is that we can do it locally.

Putnam says it was volunteers, local folks hit by the tornado, and tens of thousands more streaming in from across the country, many of them evangelical Christians with ties to Joplin's numerous churches, who've done the most of the work. But Putnam, unlike some in the blogosphere, is willing to give Long a pass.

I think this is the system we operate under, and everybody thinks as long as we're under this system, it's fine for him to try to maximize FEMA's contribution.

MORRIS: At a gas station, just outside the destruction zone in Joplin, Ed Cryts, a local contractor, says he's grateful for the help, and mightily impressed with FEMA, but not with the rest of the government.

ED CRYTS: As far as helping people out, FEMA's done a good job. But as far as what the people at the top are doing, I'm not too happy.

MORRIS: Billy Long insists the tornado hasn't altered his views either.

LONG: Budgeting is about priorities, and you certainly have to prioritize for situations like this.

MORRIS: And Long says he's confident, that whatever tough choices have to be made, Uncle Sam's not going to skimp on helping people laid low by natural disaster. As for the government, there are still a lot of things Long aims to change, but it's less likely you'll hear him complaining any more about being fed up.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.