While Congress plays at cutting a few billion dollars from the bloated federal budget, the larger financial disaster hanging over us is Washington's promises to pay the multibillion-dollar costs of Hurricane Katrina and of hurricanes and earthquakes to come. How did we get into this mess?
It started small. Huge deficit-builders are always as small as newborn pandas at first, although hardly as cute. When Minnesota suffered flooding in 1950, Rep. Harold Hagen asked his congressional colleagues to provide relief for his state. He introduced a bill that became the Disaster Relief Act, the federal government's first means of creating "an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the states and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage." The bill's price tag was only $5 million.
Disaster relief, like Social Security and Medicaid, then expanded, as Congress 13 times through 1980 responded to other tough situations by adding on grants for temporary housing, legal help and mental health. Presidents began issuing more declarations of calamity: Dwight Eisenhower averaged 13 per year; John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, 18; Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, 37.
The annual average dropped to 32 during the Carter administration and 28 during the Reagan years. But the number jumped under George H.W. Bush, who averaged 43 declarations annually, and it was off to the races with Bill Clinton, who more than doubled the total to 88 and was the first president to make snowstorms official disasters. George W. Bush has gone even further: During his first term he averaged 136 declarations per year, or one every 2.7 days, although there were fewer hurricanes (and fewer major hurricanes) than during the 1950s.
Jimmy Carter in 1979 tried to make sense of disaster relief by establishing FEMA via executive order. He stated that the new structure would "permit more rational decisions of the relative costs and benefits of alternative approaches to disasters." Carter was wrong: Presidents kept reacting politically, and local and state officials kept passing the buck and asking for bucks.
None of the Katrina debate is really new, not even for the Bush family: When Hurricane Andrew caused huge damage in Florida in 1992, Dade County officials on television screamed that President Bush didn't care, and he (during a futile re-election attempt) promised them a multibillion-dollar moon over Miami.