Mike Needham

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.

As with most fights in Washington, the question over whether or not to offset the spending is only the tip of the iceberg.  The real question is what should be the appropriate role of the federal government in disaster response and relief.

FEMA has been growing rapidly since 1993. Before that, the federal government was certainly involved in disaster relief, but states were primarily responsible for handling their own affairs when it came to natural disasters. But now, states are less and less responsible for hardships they face, especially from a financial standpoint.

That is not to say the federal government doesn’t have a support role; it does when disasters are so severe and widespread that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the states affected.  Recently, however, we’ve begun to see an over-federalization of disaster response.

Not only that, but according to The Heritage Foundation the number of federally declared disasters has been on the rise since 1993.  Just two-and-a-half years into his presidency, President Obama issued 375 declarations. 

How does that measure up historically?  Well, it is more declarations than President Dwight Eisenhower’s in two terms (106), President Richard Nixon’s in two terms (212), and President Ronald Reagan’s in two terms (225). President Obama is even outpacing Presidents Clinton and Bush on an annual basis.

For those counting along at home, that is one declaration every 2.48 days.  If every two and a half days there’s a new federal disaster that means that something very, very bad is coming Wednesday, and sometime Friday night. With President Obama declaring a natural disaster every couple of days, it should be no surprise the disaster relief fund is running dry.

Conservatives must stand strong on offsetting additional spending, even when up against something as politically difficult as disaster relief.  More fundamentally, the entire system needs to be reformed so that states will stop calling on the federal government and start recognizing the risks of their geography and plan accordingly.


Mike Needham

Mike Needham is the Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Action for America, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to advancing legislation that promotes freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.