The bill President Trump signed on Friday providing $15.25 billion for hurricane relief efforts was at best a down payment.
Damages from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are still being tabulated, and between now and early December, when the threats of a debt-ceiling expiration and a government shutdown return, the White House and Congress will be wrestling with new pressures for more disaster-related spending mixed into the usual stew of competing appropriations demands.
Together the Harvey and Irma monster storms are shaping up to be the costliest ever, at a combined $290 billion in overall costs, according to AccuWeather. And the federal response could end up being higher than the $120 billion spent after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and the $48 billion after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
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Politically, the surprising speed with which this month’s threatened budget crisis was averted by both parties may not be a reliable sign of coming consensus on how to pay for emergencies while battling disagreements over defense spending, agency spending cuts and funding Trump’s border wall.
There are clues in some lawmaker rhetoric, with Republicans stressing the urgency of helping victims fast, and Democrats calling for broader talks on the bigger budget picture.
“As one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters continues to unfold before our eyes, this Congress must ensure that our federal government is able to meet the short- and long-term needs of disaster victims,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. on Sept. 6. “I believe that every type of resource ought to be utilized to support rescue, relief and recovery efforts. I want to reassure the people of Texas and Louisiana that we are there for them in their time of greatest need.”
The same day, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel, urged colleagues for swift approval of emergency disaster aid combined with the debt ceiling rise.
“The serious nature of the natural disasters and fiscal commitments before us demand the Senate and House act without delay. We need to act to support the victims, volunteers, and first responders on the ground,” Cochran said. “The Congress has a duty to ensure that government operations are maintained and that our country’s financial obligations are met.”
His Democratic counterpart, by contrast, Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the floor Sept. 7 that the much-needed bill was “only a first step.” He said he would “continue to fight for all necessary resources to ensure the safety of those in the path of these horrific storms and rebuild and repair the damage left in their wake.”
But he noted that President Trump’s budget had proposed deep cuts in agencies that assist with hurricane response such as the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, and in hurricane-related programs such as the Sea Grant Program, the Flood Map Modernization Program, Watershed Flood Prevention Operations, Regional Coastal Resilience Grants, Community Development Block Grants, and State and Local First Responder grants.
“I have been asking since March to begin bipartisan budget negotiations to establish responsible topline funding levels for both defense and non-defense programs based on parity so we can complete the appropriations process,” Leahy added. “The current budget caps will not allow us to produce 12 responsible bills. Absent a budget deal, deep cuts are mandated by the Budget Control Act for both defense and non-defense programs. These negotiations must move forward with urgency.”
Rep. Nina Lowey, D-N.Y., ranking member on the House appropriations panel, said during debate on Sept. 8 that “while Congress should never be content to govern by continuing resolution, extending federal funding through Dec. 8 gives Congress the time to do what we should have done months ago—engage in a bipartisan, bicameral process to develop a new budget agreement with realistic caps on defense and nondefense spending….. This will make it possible to negotiate and enact bipartisan full-year appropriations that invest in working families, improve communities and increase our security at home and abroad.”
Private advocacy groups have also weighed in on the hurricanes’ budgetary impact. Taxpayers for Common Sense in a Sept. 1 blog post, surveyed controversies over reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (which is $25 billion in debt) and whether the 2012 relief effort for Hurricane Sandy victims was truly littered with unrelated spending. “Post-disaster shouldn’t be about making every federal agency whole, but prioritizing existing funding with emergency cash helping out,” the group said. “Just like the ‘fog of war,’ there is a ‘fog of disaster’ and the country would be better served to mete out funds more deliberately… rather than [rely on] the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot ‘get all the cash at once when Uncle Sam’s wallet is open’ approach.”
The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight reviewed past disaster relief and stressed the need for better oversight to stop waste and fraud. “Congress is rightfully planning on passing legislation to provide disaster relief,” wrote director of investigations Nick Schwellenbach. “However, Congress and the administration must ensure that our money is responsibly spent on assistance to communities in need rather than lining the pockets of disaster profiteers or otherwise wasted.”
Steve Bell, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center who was formerly staff director of the Republican-controlled Senate Budget Committee, said the current notion that emergency spending should be automatically offset is a “peculiar” change that emerged in the past several years. “It was during Superstorm Sandy, where we had people, mostly Republican, departing from the way it was done in the past,” he said, recalling disasters as far back as the 1980s that were not offset. “Who in their right mind would say we have to cut $200 billion out of the budget or raise taxes to offset Harvey or Irma” and the damage to Texas, Louisiana, Florida and the American territories? That goes against “a longstanding American fiscal tradition,” Bell said.
Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said he doesn’t think the hurricanes will “affect the budget outcome, but the timing.” What his group hopes will happen by December is something larger than just “a tiny budget deal to set the cap levels” for sequestration under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“A mini-bargain, not as large as grand bargain but one that goes further than just this year’s appropriations level by finding a permanent solution to the sequester” would be desirable, he said. A more sustainable deal aligning taxes and spending would set in the budget some rules that “prevent tax reform and other legislation from adding to the debt,” he added, perhaps with “a down payment on deficit reduction with spending restraint, and ideally combined with a further increase in the debt limit and some movement toward entitlement reform and budget process reform.”