On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law a $50 billion recovery package for states hit by Hurricane Sandy. Much of the proposed spending in the law, however, is simply wasteful and will not go toward helping the immediate victims.
This is unacceptable at a time when the U.S. is running trillion-dollar budget deficits. While the catastrophic scope of Sandy merited a federal response, Congress missed an opportunity to establish clear requirements for when a disaster warrants a federal response. Failure to deal with this serious problem will continue to erode preparedness for future catastrophic disasters.
While providing for some worthwhile items, such as $5.4 billion for repair of tunnels and other damaged infrastructure, much of the act is aimed at either mitigating future events or repairing or replacing federal assets, not assisting the immediate victims. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that at least half the funds will be disbursed after 2015—not exactly time-sensitive, emergency spending.
Senator Kelly Ayotte (R–NH) summed it up well: “[I]f a main goal of the Sandy relief legislation that passed the Senate was to quickly get resources into the hands of those who need it most, the final product fell short.”
The act includes billions for “future” disaster mitigation projects and for repair or replacement of federal “assets” in such agencies as the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Justice; the Social Security Administration; and the Smithsonian. It also includes money to improve weather forecasting and research at a host of agencies. While some of these spending programs likely have merit, they should be proposed through the regular budget process—not by attaching them to truly necessary assistance to hurting people.
Moreover, any new spending programs should be offset by finding savings elsewhere during these trying fiscal times. Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) offered a commonsense amendment to offset a portion of the costs of the package, but it was defeated in a party-line vote. “We have to stop and consider the fact that we are more than $16 trillion in debt and we’re adding to that debt at a rate of more than $1 trillion every single year,” Lee stated.
Not only does this act add to the deficit, but it is also reflects another symptom of government growth: over-federalization of natural disasters. In less than two years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has issued a stunning 353 disaster declarations—despite the absence of major hurricanes or earthquakes (except Hurricanes Irene and Sandy). This high operational tempo keeps FEMA in a perpetual response mode, leaving little time and few resources to prepare to handle a real catastrophic disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy.
To reverse this trend, Congress should modify the Stafford Act to establish which disasters meet the federal requirements for disaster dollars. Such clarifications should include clear requirements that limit the situations in which declarations can be issued. Congress should also reduce the cost-share provision for all FEMA declarations to no more than 25 percent of the costs are covered by the federal government, so that most of the costs of a disaster are borne by taxpayers living in the affected state or states.