By Teresa Welsh |
The context of this question is as important as the question. Contrary to numerous misleading media reports, there is no debate about providing emergency disaster assistance to Oklahoma in the wake of this week's tornado tragedy. FEMA currently has $11.6 billion in what is called the Disaster Relief Fund that, I believe, will be more than sufficient to address needs in Oklahoma. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently stated, "Right now, we don't need the money."
Nonetheless, this an important policy question Congress has faced in the past and will certainly face again.
I have three primary concerns with emergency disaster bills.
First, we're broke and can no longer afford to live outside our means. Finding offsets should not be that difficult in a budget that is rife with waste. According to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the federal government spends at least $200 billion on waste and duplication each year. Why wouldn't we divert funds that are being misspent and use those dollars to help disaster victims rebuild their lives and communities? Borrowing money instead of redirecting funds we don't need is irresponsible and unnecessary.
Second, Congress has a history of using emergency disaster bills that aren't offset for priorities that have nothing to do with disaster relief. Seventy percent of the $50 billion Hurricane Sandy supplemental bill, for instance, won't be spent until after 2015, which suggests it is economic "stimulus" at best and pork-barrel spending at worst. And we are still uncovering examples of mismanagement from the Hurricane Katrina bill. In April, we learned $700 million to help victims fortify their homes against floods was missing. Meanwhile, millions of dollars of "emergency" Katrina funds are still unspent.
Third, large, unwieldy and pork-laden disaster bills from Washington are often less effective than local responses. In the few days since Oklahoma endured such an unimaginable loss of life and property, the people of my state have responded with grace, resilience, determination and compassion. To its credit, Oklahoma has tapped $45 million from its rainy day fund. Meanwhile, countless Oklahomans and other Americans have donated millions of dollars to the recovery effort.
Emergency disaster bills will sometimes be necessary when existing federal funds, state resources and private donations aren't sufficient. But, as Oklahomans know, they should be a last resort, not a first resource. And they should never be funded with borrowed money when offsets in today's federal budget are so easy to find.
About Tom Coburn Republican Senator from Oklahoma
Daniel J. Weiss Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund
Barry Goodwin Professor of Economics and Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University
Matt Mayer Visiting Fellow in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation