Last week, President Obama issued a request for $60.4 billion for Hurricane Sandy response and recovery. Yet as the fiscal cliff continues to loom nearby, many on Capitol Hill are asking exactly where that money would come from.
While House Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) has indicated that he is still evaluating the President’s request and deciding how to move forward, others in both the House and the Senate are calling for Hurricane Sandy spending to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget—and they’ve been quick to take heat for it.
Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL) has stated, “This is fundamentally unfair for some Republicans to insist on offsets for Sandy.… This notion that we have to cut money out of the budget, Medicare, you name it, to offset each of these disasters is unrealistic and unfair.”
Let’s put aside the tugging on Americans’ heartstrings for a minute and see if the facts paint a different picture.
First of all, let’s look at how we got here. At present, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has roughly $5 billion left in its Disaster Relief Fund and $5.4 billion still available under the cap put in place by last year’s Budget Control Act. Proponents of the President’s spending proposal, however, argue that this is not nearly enough.
This should be no surprise, after all. With 353 disaster declarations issued in less than two years, FEMA has been made to respond to all manners of disasters, no matter how big or small. For those of you who didn’t already do the math, that’s about one disaster every two days. No wonder, then, that FEMA’s coffers are low.
And then, of course, you have the President’s request itself, which can be called nothing less than an act of “willful fiscal negligence.”
Roughly $28 billion of the request is marked for future disaster-mitigation projects on the East Coast, including $3.2 million for erosion control projects and $15 billion for Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants. As Heritage’s Matt Mayer explains, “[S]etting aside whether these projects have merit, a supplemental spending request to deal with a current crisis is not the appropriate vehicle to propose new spending projects.”
Among other components of the request, just to name a few:
- $3 billion for federal departments and agencies to repair or replace federal assets, including $2 million for roof repairs at the Smithsonian;
- $200 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be used freely at the discretion of the Secretary; and
- $6 million to purchase food for food banks, a need that could be better met by local companies and the nonprofit sector.
Remove unnecessary items from the Administration’s request, and you’re left with a request of $12.8 billion in supplemental funds.
It is time that FEMA stop being made to respond to all manners of routine disasters, so that when truly catastrophic disasters (such as Hurricane Sandy) strike, FEMA and its pocketbook are prepared.
Proponents of looking at offsets for the hurricane supplemental have a point. As Mayer explains, “[T]oo much of the Obama Administration’s supplemental request for Hurricane Sandy includes items best left for its upcoming budget.… Because of the federal government’s dire fiscal condition, underscored by the current fiscal cliff negotiations, spending reductions should offset any additional spending.”