How to Pay For Disaster Relief

We need to make smarter choices about how we respond to natural disasters.

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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The images and descriptions of the devastation caused by the tornados in Oklahoma are heartbreaking – dozens of people killed, homes destroyed and a community struggling to salvage what is left in the wake of the storm.

Disasters like this bring out the generosity of the American people. Contributions to relief organizations like the Red Cross always spike, people travel to the affected area to help out and of course, local, state and federal authorities step in to provide swift assistance to the families and businesses suffering losses as a result of whatever natural disaster has just occurred.

The day after the tornado hit Moore and elsewhere in Oklahoma, President Obama declared a major disaster in several counties, making them eligible for immediate assistance, including loans and grants to help with community rebuilding, home repairs and to mitigate losses of uninsured property. That assistance is already on its way, just days after the storm. And the good news is that despite the sequester taking a bite out of funds available for disasters, the federal disaster relief fund has more than $11 billion in its coffers for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But if history is any lesson, the fast action of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and availability of funds won't feel like enough – and additional funds will be requested to help communities rebuild. These additional funds could come in the form of an emergency supplemental appropriations bill, like we saw in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, or in increases and designations in the regular appropriations bills, or both.

Unfortunately, because requests for disaster assistance are seen as must-pass bills with a quick ticket through the Capitol, they are often weighed down with unrelated spending (some worthy, but not emergency; some just wasteful). To top it off, the convention has been to exempt emergency appropriations bills from budget caps and limitations, so there has been a higher than average tolerance for deficit spending in disaster bills. And so, something we hope will be part of an important solution – helping communities in desperate need – becomes part of another problem.

But the media focus on whether the people of Moore and other areas will get immediate help in the absence of an immediate supplemental appropriations bill misses the larger point about our disaster spending. The strength of the current system is that it allows for quick deployment of relief. But the weaknesses of our nation's approach to disasters is that it undervalues work to prepare for them, whether that's in providing communities guidance for how to minimize damage likely to result from disasters or in how we budget for disasters.

In 15 out of the 20 years between 1991 and 2011, Congress passed emergency supplemental appropriations bills to address the needs of communities in the wakes of flood, fires, tornados and terrorism. And in three of the five years in which emergency supplemental bills were not passed, budget games were employed to allow disaster relief funds to pass through the regular budget process without being subject to regular order budget caps, according to the Congressional Research Service.

People want and need federal disaster relief, but we need to plan ahead, understand how to pay for it and reduce or mitigate costs where we can. Disaster spending is not a primary cause of our overall budget woes, but it does reflect our underlying challenges. We didn't accumulate a $16.5 trillion debt solely through wasteful spending; we also built the debt through habitually spending more money – sometimes on critical, vital services – than we take in. 

[See Photos: Deadly Moore Tornado Devastates Oklahoma.]

If our disaster policy as a country does, in fact, require emergency spending in three out of every four years, we need to change the way we plan for and pay for disasters. We should require states to meet minimum disaster planning standards and building codes for the highest levels of federal aid. We should also reevaluate what constitutes a major disaster that outstrips a state's ability to respond adequately.

We know we are a generous, compassionate nation that will come together to aid communities that are suffering. Let 's come together to make smarter choices about how we respond – and prespond – to disasters as well.

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