Hurricane Irene: Where will the government get the money to pay for the cleanup?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 29 2011 7:31 PM

Every Day Is a Rainy Day

Eric Cantor's rule: Money to help those affected by Irene will have to come from somewhere else in the federal budget.

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That sets up Cantor's Republicans for the coming cuts-for-Irene fight. How will it work? Well, we don't know yet just how much the disaster is going to cost. We do know that the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund is running dry. That's a symptom of Congress' not-quite-new inability to pass anything on time; more directly, it's a side effect of the bill that would fill up the fund, the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill of 2012, sitting in limbo after passing the House.

Democrats say that they'll take up the bill as soon as Congress returns. (Let's pause for a moment and remember the afternoon, right after the S&P downgrade, when a couple of members suggested that Congress return right away, then mumbled something and went on vacation.) Their problem: Republicans had already started on the cuts-for-aid strategy when they wrote the bill, and the disaster relief would be paid for with cuts to the Coast Guard, the INS, and other things that sound bad when you actually have to write them down.

What will be cut in order to pay for Irene? Sorry, we don't know. If FEMA asks for a supplemental funding bill, we'll have that fight. Coburn's still in the Senate, there's no shortage of projects he thinks we can cut, and some cuts can be so back-loaded that they don't touch infrastructure funding. "Anything could be cut," says Coburn's communications director, John Hart. "We've identified $9 trillion in cuts. Part of the Oklahoma City bombing disaster money was offset in the 1990s."

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And if we're lucky, this will be a sideshow. The debt deal that voters so adore created a literal rainy day fund, which would be filled up annually with enough cash to pay for disasters, based on an average of what the last 10 years of disasters ended up costing. Yes: Congress actually passed this.

So let's adjust our outrage-o-meters. Cuts-for-aid is the new normal. What else is new? Well, having so many disasters handed over to FEMA is new. According to Matt Mayer, who worked at DHS from March 2004 to May 2006 and now runs the conservative Buckeye Institute, President Obama has broken the record for most disaster declarations in one year. He broke the record before the earthquake or the hurricane hit. There have been 160 declarations so far in 2011; there were 106 during the entire presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Those declarations commit FEMA to spending money for preparation even when the disaster peters out completely. Obama is not responsible for this, either.

"The FEMA directors when I was there, under Bush, were also status quo guys," says Mayer. "Why? I'd refer you back to what [former Clinton FEMA director] James Lee Witt said: Disasters are inherently political events."

Mayer doesn't have to persuade voters to like him, so he can go where Cantor fears to tread. The post-Irene slap fight will be about what can be cut in order to pay for disaster aid. The fight Congress is putting off is whether the government, with its new, creaky-sounding relief fund, and with a House that wants to starve the government, can keep getting involved in disasters at the current rate.

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