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.

Billy Stinson's cottage built in 1903 in Nags Head, N.C., was destroyed by Hurricane Irene. Click image to expand.
Hurricane Irene's destruction in Nags Head, N.C.

If Michele Bachmann is right, and God plagued the land with earthquakes and hurricanes to send us a political message, then He must want us to pay attention to Eric Cantor. The 5.8 earthquake that rattled much of the Mid-Atlantic started in Mineral, Va., a small town in the majority leader's district. Hurricane Irene terrorized tourists, residents, and anchormen all over the region, and it did real damage to the stretch of eastern Virginia that sends Cantor to Congress.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Cantor toured his district. He saw the damage. He got asked whether Republicans would help rebuild, and then he made Democratic heads explode.

"We will find the money if there is a need for additional money," Cantor told Fox News on Monday. "But those monies are not unlimited, and we have said we have to offset that which has already been funded."

Advertisement

Offsets? Really? For a natural disaster? Yes, really. Cantor had already said that money to restore Joplin, Mo., from devastating tornadoes had to be paid for with cuts, not loans. Even Missouri Republicans had agreed with him. Cantor's not making a mistake when he mused about cuts-for-relief in his own district. He's sounding like former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said in 2008—correctly!—that a crisis was an "opportunity to do things that you could not do before."

Before, Republicans couldn't even have this argument. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, House and Senate conservatives suggested that any aid to the Gulf Coast had to be matched by cuts. The plan that got the furthest came from a team of Senate hard-liners who called for a delay in the Medicare Part D benefit and a 5 percent cut across the board to everything but Homeland Security and Defense spending. (Since 2002, FEMA—and its pricey insurance mandates—has been part of DHS.) "We need to separate those things that we must do from those that we would like to do," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said it was a perfect time to stop the $230 million "bridge to nowhere." Why let a good crisis go to waste?

The late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who kind of wanted that bridge, dismissed his colleagues as "people looking for the headlines." He ran the appropriations committee in the Senate. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said outright that it would be "worth borrowing" to avoid cuts and that "taking spending from infrastructure spending would undermine our ability to create the environment for a good economy." He effectively ran the House. The GOP's cuts-for-Katrina insurgency died in the nursery.

That was six years ago. The Republicans who doubted DeMint have all been sidelined. The public that shuddered at cuts-for-Katrina grew up and learned about how FEMA money and relief funds were shelved or wasted. (We know it was more than $1 billion.) According to former staff, DeLay's jitters had a lot to do with the moral panic about how the government had failed and a sense that it would have been bad politics to cut against that.

Compare 2005 to now: 1,464 deaths to 24 deaths. In 2005, the estimated cost of Katrina recovery was as high as $200 billion; the final cost was $122 billion. In 2011, the Kinetic Analysis Corporation—one of the independent groups that estimates this stuff—has cut its initial $20 billion damage estimate for Irene to between $5 billion and $10 billion. The people who fled New York and the Jersey shore and low-lying parts of Vermont, the Washingtonians waiting for Pepco to restore their damn electricity already, breathe deeply and think: This is horrible, but it could have been worse.

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."

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.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 25 2014 3:21 PM Listen to Our November Music Roundup Hot tracks for our fall playlist, exclusively for Slate Plus members.