The Senate finally passed a $50.5 billion disaster relief bill this week for states hit by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy, sending it to the president more than 90 days after the huge storm and its destructive surge came ashore. Some senators grumbled about the delay and cuts made by the House of Representatives but they have only themselves to blame.
Both the region’s response to Sandy — New York and New Jersey alone asked the President for $78 billion — and the Sandy relief bill stand out as examples of the growing extravagance of disaster-relief expectations.
That courts a public backlash.
Late last year the Senate sent the House a storm relief bill containing billions in unnecessary pork, adding $10 billion for benefits to Louisiana and other Mississippi River jurisdictions and for payments to commercial fisheries for smaller catches, neither of which had anything to do with Sandy.
The House rightly refused to be rushed into action, waiting until this year to return a bill stripped of those provisions. To senators who objected to the House action, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., replied, “We have a habit here of throwing money at things under an emergency category, and then later finding out that, one, it wasn’t an emergency where the money went; and, two, it was misspent and not effective. We just simply can’t afford to keep doing this.”
Even so, the House bill that the Senate finally accepted is still full of questionable items. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited funds that will be spent in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, the Mariana Islands, the District of Columbia and, indeed, much of the United States for programs that have nothing to do with Sandy recovery.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 7 percent of the $50.5 billion — less than $5 billion — will be spent on immediate needs related to Sandy, and that roughly 70 percent will not be spent until two years from now or even later.
Senate Democrats voted down a Republican amendment requiring offsetting reductions in other federal spending to keep the Sandy relief bill from adding to the deficit, saying that traditionally was not done in emergency relief.
But business as usual and the increasing largesse of disaster relief bills should no longer be the rule.
Only communities like Charleston, which have experienced a major disaster like Hurricane Hugo and federal delays in providing relief, can fully appreciate the necessity for timely action.
Making disaster relief a Christmas tree bill threatens to erode public support. At the least, it will delay congressional action as fiscal hawks reasonably raise red flags when needed allocations are tainted by pork.
Figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency show a steady increase in the number of presidential disaster declarations since a 1988 law and later amendments made more generous provision for federal disaster relief.
President Barack Obama has set the record, averaging 144 a year. That’s 12 a month, and twice President Bill Clinton’s average.
A recent paper by James W. Fossett of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government notes that current trends in the generosity of federal disaster responses, the frequency of disaster declarations and the rising costs of individual disasters could lead to unfunded liabilities over the next 75 years of trillions of dollars, adding to the rising pressure of federal spending on the nation’s fiscal health.
The federal government should do everything possible to help regions struck by disaster to recover.
But Congress should not spend more than necessary, particularly for matters unrelated to the disaster at hand.
And it should begin to include contingent disaster relief funds in the federal budget — if it ever gets around to approving one.