Emergency aid part of appropriations problem

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Contract workers line the dock with oil-absorbent boom in Perdido Bay near Orange Beach, AL. 14 June 2010.

Article Highlights

  • No direct link between rescissions and disaster relief funding--with one exception, Hurricane Katrina

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  • On a very short leash with another deadline coming in mid-November, suggests pattern of using deadlines for leverage

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  • We need a better and more forward-thinking way to deal with natural disasters

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Yet another man-made or manufactured disaster was avoided last week when Congress resolved its dispute over how much money to appropriate for disaster relief and whether to offset it.

That confrontation threatening a government shutdown was in the making since the moment House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggested in August that the money Congress would appropriate for East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene relief should be offset by cuts in other spending for the fiscal year that began this past Saturday.

"As I have pointed out before, and no doubt will again, this was not the only threat of shutdown we have ahead." -- Norman J. Ornstein

After multiple assurances by Congressional leaders that there would be no shutdowns or threats of shutdown--after all, the contentious end game negotiations over the debt ceiling resulted in bipartisan agreement on spending levels for the year, making confrontation unnecessary--we had a real threat of shutdown over a tiny sum of money relative to the rest of the budget.

As I have pointed out before, and no doubt will again, this was not the only threat of shutdown we have ahead.

The agreement reached last week does not resolve appropriations issues for the year--if there were no intention of sparking controversy, or using the hostage-taking methods that have become commonplace in the House, there would be no reason to do more very short-term continuing resolutions.

Why not, because the dollar levels are set, do a longer-term continuing resolution and let it be superseded, if possible, by the regular order of appropriations bills as they pass both chambers and achieve compromise in a conference.

The fact that we are on a very short leash, with another deadline coming in mid-November, suggests another pattern, just like last year's, of using the deadlines for leverage.

Are House Republicans likely to accede to the numbers on Interior-Environment appropriations by giving up on their dozens of riders designed to strangle the Environmental Protection Agency and undercut the bulk of existing environmental regulations? On the provisions they want to build in denying money to implement the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank? Hardly.

To be sure, they might give in, as they did on offsets for disaster relief, if Democrats dig in and find a way, using the presidential bully pulpit, to make it clear that a shutdown, partial or more, would redound more against Republicans than Democrats. But I will be very surprised if we don't see a lot of brinkmanship here in coming months.

On the disaster relief front, Cantor's office released a study by the majority staff of the House Appropriations Committee saying that offsets on disaster relief are actually commonplace, if not routine.

I dug into their examples a bit, albeit with my limited expertise on what really goes down on the process for supplemental appropriations, and found the examples they used shaky at best.

Scott Lilly, the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, has done his own more devastating analysis. Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, shows that after a decade of battles over how to pay for unforeseen emergencies, Congress in 1990 decided to create a process to pay for "dire emergencies," as designated by the president and Congress, outside the normal appropriations setting.

During the 1990s, emergency spending totaled less than $140 billion--a third of which was for the Gulf War (repaid by our allies.) Take that out, and we are looking at less than $10 billion a year on average for dire emergency spending.

But as Lilly, using a Congressional Budget Office report, noted, that changed in fiscal 2002, during a time when Republicans controlled the reins of power in Washington, D.C.; for the next six years, unbudgeted emergency spending grew to an average of $103 billion a year. It was not because we had more "dire emergencies."

It was because the White House and Congressional Republicans decided to use the back door of supplemental appropriations for all kinds of spending, especially on Iraq, that could not pass any laugh test as an emergency--such as printing political posters and creating a local area network for the Iraq Stock Exchange. There were no offsets.

Were there offsets for real disaster relief? A Congressional Research Service report shows that there were always small amounts of money rescinded that had been appropriated for prior years' emergencies--that was true for disasters and nondisasters, regular appropriations and emergency supplemental.

There was no direct link between rescissions and disaster relief funding--with one exception, Hurricane Katrina.

But a careful examination of the $23 billion rescinded for Katrina shows that it was not the kind of example Cantor thought it was. The money came from an earlier $51 billion emergency supplemental with no offsets and was reallocated to other agencies for Katrina cleanup from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In other words, older emergency funding was rescinded and used to pay for redirected new emergency funding sent to agencies better equipped to spend it than FEMA.

We clearly need a better and more forward-thinking way to deal with natural disasters because climate change with its swings in weather patterns is bringing more of them to more places.

Maybe we need a state-driven pool akin to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to have money readily available. Maybe we need to have tougher Congressional rules to limit the backdoor use of supplementals to avoid accountability; after all, that is the way we unconscionably deficit-financed hundreds of billions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But setting a new precedent by saying we are going to ease the hardship of hurricane victims by adding to the hardship of other Americans is not the way to do it--especially by holding much of the government hostage along the way.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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