In the wake of disasters across the Midwest, most of the entire east coast and at least 30,000 acres of Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund has dipped below $550 million. Unfortunately, its continued solvency is at the mercy of Congress. That this shortfall -- which has been a problem now for more than a year -- should occur in the wake of bipartisan plaudits for the agency's performance during Hurricane Irene is ironic at best, disturbing at worst.
At the moment, the negotiations over FEMA's budget is heavy on shadow and fog and short on clarity. Last Wednesday, Senators John Cornyn and Richard Burr opined that funding for the agency ought to be offset by spending cuts because, says Cornyn, "we can’t keep spending money we don’t have." As Thinkprogress notes, the sudden concern over running up debt is laughable:
This purist principle did not stop both Cornyn and Burr for voting to fund rebuilding efforts in Iraq without a single offset.
Yesterday John Thune (who, it should be noted, voted in favor of requiring on-budget funding for Iraq) added his voice to the chorus. He said that despite a tradition of keeping politics out of FEMA funding, "These are different times. We have got to figure out how to pay for these things." Thune did not specify why this paradigm shift was necessary, and how these times are different, but I can hazard a guess.
How much support there is for the position taken by Cornyn, Burr and Thune among the GOP leadership is undetermined. On Tuesday budget director Jacob Lew announced the administration's intention to request a) $6.6 billion for disaster aid and b) emergency funding legislation to replenish FEMA's disaster account for September. Given a chance to oppose this, House majority leader Eric Cantor took a pass. According to the Associated Press:
Cantor, whose district and state were slammed last month by a rare earthquake and Hurricane Irene, says disaster aid only would have to be paid for if lawmakers hadn't adequately budgeted for it previously and had instead tapped disaster accounts to pay for other programs. He said that in past years lawmakers had routinely and purposefully underfunded disaster aid accounts to make room in the budget for other spending — and forced adoption of emergency, deficit-financed spending bills to make up for the shortfall.
The Senate will vote soon on a stand-alone measure to replenish the relief fund, perhaps in the next few days. Such a vote would, observed the Los Angeles Times, "escalate a confrontation with House Republicans."
I don't expect this tug of war to end anytime soon. But just maybe, as disasters inevitably strike the districts of lawmakers who would deprive FEMA of the money it needs to function, it will revert to the apolitical, pro forma process it once was.