Later today, the House will vote on an $81 billion disaster recovery package (H.R. 4667) intended to help recovery efforts stemming from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate, and immediate relief for those fighting wildfires across California and other western states.
Introduced by Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), this 160-page bill includes $27.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund, $26 billion for the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Community Development Block Grant Program, $12.1 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, an unacceptable expansion of already excessive handouts to the cotton industry, among other provisions. This additional recovery relief funding is the largest single funding request for natural disaster assistance in the history of this country and is entirely unpaid for. It is nearly double the White House’s $44 billion request and if passed, will bring total disaster relief and recovery funding this year to over $130 billion—more than what was spent on Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts.
The Heritage Foundation explained earlier this year that emergency spending must meet five criteria: Necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not permanent. The five-part test was first created by President George H.W. Bush’s OMB in 1991. In a report to Congress, as required by P.L. 102-55 (June 1991), OMB defined emergency spending as the following:
- Necessary expenditure–an essential or vital expenditure, not one that is merely useful or beneficial;
- Sudden–quickly coming into being, not building up over time;
- Urgent–pressing and compelling need requiring immediate action;
- Unforeseen–not predictable or seen beforehand as a coming need (an emergency that is part of an aggregate level of anticipated emergencies, particularly when normally estimated in advance, would not be “unforeseen”); and
- Not permanent–the need is temporary in nature.
While federal relief to victims of hurricanes and forest fires is at times warranted, various provisions of this excessive $81 billion request fail to meet the five-part test. For example, the $26 billion going toward CDBG will be used to “rebuild the affected areas and provide crucial seed money to start the recovery process.” By definition, this fails the emergency test. Similarly, making cotton eligible for the Price Loss Coverage program is not necessary, urgent, or temporary in nature.
At the very least, Congress should attempt to act in a fiscally responsible manner by offsetting funding that is not truly “emergency” in nature. As Heritage Action made clear in September, “Any funds that fall outside the strict definition of ‘emergency spending’ should, such as the reported inclusion of small business loans, be offset.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) unveiled “Operation Offset,” which was essentially a menu of spending cuts to offset the costs of disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. The Heritage Foundation applauded the effort, writing that “The President and Congress are making huge federal commitments for relief and rebuilding, but these should not translate into an unprecedented expansion of the federal budget at a time when spending is already near an all-time high.” This year, The Heritage Foundation’s Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2018 and Blueprint for Reform: A Comprehensive Policy Agenda offer dozens of offset options should lawmakers wish to revive Operation Offset and govern in a fiscally responsible manner.
After eight years of criticizing the Obama administration’s addiction to federal spending, Republican lawmakers must govern as they promised the American people they would, as fiscally responsible stewards of taxpayer resources. This legislation woefully fails that promise.