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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll July 1, 2014

Did Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton vote against disaster relief five times?

Democrats are attacking Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., for his voting record on an important Tornado Alley issue.

A television ad produced by the liberal Senate Majority PAC shows video footage of tornadoes and a storm-ravaged town. The narrator, a firefighter identified as Matthew from Little Rock, goes on to criticize Cotton, who is running for Senate, for voting against disaster relief.

"I'll never understand why Congressman Cotton is the only Arkansan in Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to vote against disaster relief five times, against recovery for victims of natural disasters. He's detached himself from what's going on in Arkansas," he said.

The federal government most recently declared a disaster in Arkansas this past April, when a tornado killed 16 people -- the deadliest tornado in the state since 1968. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent about $5 million on disaster relief there, without having to seek Congressional approval.

Cotton, who is running against incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor, has been in Congress for less than two years -- has he voted against disaster relief five times?

Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf pointed us to the five times they found Cotton had voted against disaster relief since he took office in January 2013. Four out of the five have to do with funding Hurricane Sandy relief (three of those were all on one bill).

The votes are:

Vote 1: H.R. 41, January 2013

Cotton voted against a measure to temporarily increase FEMA's borrowing authority in order to carry out the National Flood Insurance Program in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The measure passed the House 354-67 and became law.

Vote 2: H.R. 152, January 2013

Cotton voted against an amendment that proposed $17 billion in emergency funding to FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The measure passed the House 327-91.

Vote 3: H.R. 152, January 2013

Cotton voted against an amendment that proposed $33.7 billion for immediate and anticipated needs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The measure passed the House 228-192.

Vote 4: H.R. 152, January 2013

Cotton voted against the final bill that would give $50 billion in disaster relief aid to communities and FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The measure passed the House 241 and 180 and became law.

Vote 5:  H.R. 3547, January 2014

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Cotton voted against this omnibus appropriations bill that appropriated money to the Disaster Relief Fund. The bill passed the House 359 to 67 and became law.

Of Arkansas’ four Republican representatives, Cotton is the only one to have voted "no" on all five of those measures. But two of them -- Timothy Griffin and and Steve Womack -- voted "no" on final passage for the final Hurricane Sandy funding bill, while Rick Crawford voted "no' on H.R. 3547, the omnibus appropriations bill. 

In the Senate, H.R. 41 passed with a voice vote, where the votes aren’t tallied. Pryor approved both of the other two bills. Republican Sen. John Boozman, however, voted "no" on H.R. 152, the Hurricane Sandy bill.

We should note that none of these votes involved specific disaster relief for Arkansas. However, H.R. 3547 was a general appropriations bill covering many areas, a small part of which had to do with funding general disaster relief. And H.R. 152 included $16 billion for community development in declared disaster areas across the country. 

Cotton’s office didn't respond to our questions, but a post on his campaign website defends his disaster relief record regarding Hurricane Sandy. "Unfortunately, Washington politicians took advantage of a tragic situation and loaded down the Sandy relief bill with billions in spending that didn’t help the victims but instead went to fund the pet causes of Congressmen," it says.

At the time, some conservatives criticized H.R. 152, the final Hurricane Sandy aid bill, for including funds that didn’t go to immediate disaster relief. According to a Congressional Quarterly analysis, $17 billion went to immediate aid, and $33.5 billion went to long-term assistance.

The budget group Taxpayers for Common Sense documented some of the side projects Cotton and his colleagues were trying to trim out of the bill, such as $2 million for Smithsonian museum roof repairs and $118 million on Amtrak upgrades.  

And Cotton’s votes on H.R. 152 weren’t all negative. For example, he voted "yes" on at least five (failed) amendments that cut funds in other areas in order to account for the additional spending on disaster relief.

He also voted "yes" on a later bill that expanded the type of nonprofit organization that could provide disaster aid and assistance.

In reviewing Cotton’s votes, we found Cotton has tended to side with tea party members of the House looking to rein in government spending at any cost. For example, he was part of the coalition that supported shutting down the federal government over raising the debt ceiling.

Cotton has been "unusually steadfast in his opposition to spending," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

"The main undertone I hear when the Pryor allies run an ad like that is another effort to paint (Cotton) as outside the mainstream, even extremist," Parry said.

Our ruling

A Senate Majority PAC ad said, "Congressman Cotton is the only Arkansan in Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to vote against disaster relief five times."

We found that Cotton voted against five bills or amendments that would have gone to immediate aid or funded disaster relief programs. The rest of the Arkansas delegation only voted "no" on some of them. However, the ad is a bit disengenuous because it really only addresses three disaster relief bills, and a couple of other Arkansan delegates voted against final passage. The ad also leaves out the times that Cotton voted for disaster relief funding, as long as there were spending cuts to other programs to make up for it. Overall, Cotton typically doesn’t support spending that isn’t balanced out with cuts in other areas.

Additionally, if you think this ad -- which shows tornado-ravaged areas -- is talking all about Arkansas, that isn't the case. Most of these votes had to do with Hurricane Sandy.

We rate this claim Half True.

UPDATE, July 9, 2014: In a response ad, Cotton listed three votes that showed his support for disaster-relief funding. We rated that ad Half True. Read that fact check here.

Our Sources

Senate Majority PAC, "Eyes," June 19, 2014

Taxpayers for Common Sense, "Analysis of Selected Provisions in Hurricane Sandy Emergency Spending Proposals," Jan. 10, 2013

Tom Cotton for Senate, "Get the Facts," accessed June 24, 2014

Tom Cotton for Senate, "Congress Must Be Willing to Shut Down the Government if Obama Won’t Budge on the Debt Ceiling," Jan. 8, 2013

Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Arkansas Severe Storms, Tornadoes and Flooding," June 30, 2014

Arkansas Business, "A Bold Stance on Stormy Issues," June 11, 2014

GovTrack, voting record database, accessed June 24, 2014

Email interview with Erik Dorey and Grant Herring, Pryor spokesmen, June 20, 2014

Email interview with Ty Matsdorf, Senate Majority PAC spokesman, June 20, 2014

Email interview with Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas, June 24, 2014

Email interview with Peter May, political science professor at the University of Washington, June 24, 2014

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Did Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton vote against disaster relief five times?

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