Lame Duck Threat: Disaster Spending
With the election behind us, Congress will convene a lame-duck session. This series will highlight major issues facing Congress that may be decided by defeated and retiring lawmakers.
The Issue: Just days after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Mid-Atlantic, lawmakers began calling on the federal government to take a bigger role in the recovery effort. Some Senators are requesting the federal government pick up 90 to 100 percent of the cost of the relief effort, as opposed to the 75 percent of disaster response normally covered. That will result in tens of billions of dollars in new spending, which would come on top of the $11.8 billion loophole created by the 2011 debt deal. Lawmakers who lament the storm’s “significant burden on our state and local governments” do not want the disaster spending offset with cuts elsewhere.
Why Lame Duck: While FEMA officials say they have enough in their disaster relief fund to cover the initial response, it not all together clear when that fund will run dry. Senators are already discussing a $5 billion package, which has been characterized as merely a first step.
Conservative Position: Although disasters such as Sandy truly overwhelm state and local resources, conservatives must insist any additional spending be offset with cuts elsewhere and, equally as important, begin the process of reforming FEMA.
- Although cost estimates for Sandy vary widely and FEMA still has disaster relief funds available, the agency is likely to ask for tens of billions of additional dollars. The imminent request may indeed have merit, but as our nation once again reaches its statutory debt ceiling, it should serve as a reminder that all new appropriations should be offset. We can, and should, budget responsibly for disasters. Last December, 21 Democrats joined 234 Republicans in voting to offset $8.6 billion in disaster spending.
- While Sandy is arguably a FEMA-sized disaster, it is also undeniable that the “federalization of disasters” has left the agency unable to adequately respond. Rather than responding to truly widespread disasters, FEMA is stretched far too thin responding to rainstorms and snowfalls. As Heritage’s Matt Mayer explains, “FEMA policies must be overhauled to let localities handle smaller, localized disasters, and to allow FEMA to respond fully and effectively when it is truly needed.”
- Heritage explains FEMA has become a “political pork-barrel spending agency.” The use of major disaster declarations, emergency declarations, and fire management assistance declarations continues to grow (see chart). And to be clear, this has become a bipartisan problem. President Obama is averaging 153 declarations per year, whereas President Bush came in second with an eight-year average of 129.6.