Another hurricane is brewing in the Atlantic and fires rage in Oklahoma and Texas. Meanwhile, all across the country, Americans are working to rebuild after spring floods, summer tornados and Hurricane Irene. Enter the federal government.
State and local officials often look to Washington for financial assistance after a disaster strikes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a product of the Carter administration, is frequently a governor’s best friend, doling out federal money for various assistance plans and reconstruction projects. And because that money is for disaster relief, it is usually designated as “emergency spending” and ends up adding to our national debt.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina – the most expensive hurricane on record – ravaged the Gulf Coast a small band of conservative lawmakers did not object to the tens of billions of dollars in disaster aid that followed, but they did demand the additional spending be offset with cuts elsewhere. Our nation’s debt was less than $8 trillion at the time, and the group was described as a “fringe” element.
Following Hurricane Irene, it became clear FEMA’s disaster relief fund would soon run out of cash. The agency has already announced a prioritization plan (sound familiar?) while they await additional funding. But with our federal debt at $14.6 trillion and counting, we cannot go down the business-as-usual path of deficit spending. Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor laid out the position of House Republicans, saying, “those monies are not unlimited. And what we’ve always said is, we’ve offset that which has already been funded.”
This set the political left and the White House ablaze. Words like “abhorrent,” “hostage” and “fiasco” were thrown about. But notice Mr. Cantor never said Republicans did not want to provide more disaster relief, he simply insisted those funds be offset with cuts elsewhere so we do not add to our nation’s dangerously high debt. If President Obama is “very committed to fiscal discipline,” as the White House insists, he should support this effort.
Considering that federal spending increased by $160 billion a year on average over the past decade, it should not be difficult to find cuts to offset additional aid for those affected by this storm. In fact, the Republican-controlled House already appropriated an additional $1 billion in disaster relief this year and another $2.65 billion next year. But the Senate has refused to consider the proposal.