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Washington Memo: Important Hurricane Sandy relief bill uses crisis to go on spending spree

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. speaks as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stands at left  during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. speaks as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stands at left during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

There’s no question that individuals, businesses and communities in areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy still need help getting back on their feet. That’s why I supported an initial $9.7 billion in emergency relief that was signed into law at the beginning of this year.

But even with our nation $16.4 trillion in debt, some in Washington still believe that a crisis isn’t something that should go to waste. And as additional Sandy relief legislation was written, a few members of Congress decided to use an emergency disaster recovery bill to give a free ride to millions in non-emergency spending. It’s precisely the kind of irresponsible spending practice that is bankrupting our country.

With thousands of homes destroyed and businesses in ruins, we should prioritize emergency aid for Sandy’s victims to recover, rebuild and return to normal. In December, when Congress first attempted to pass a relief bill, I voted in favor of a $24 billion package that would expedite aid to those who need it most urgently. This legislation was written based on addressing immediate needs – and it didn’t include millions in spending unrelated to helping individuals and communities recover from last fall’s devastating storm.

Unfortunately, that bill was defeated. And the Senate voted instead this week – without my support – to put taxpayers on the hook for a separate $50.5 billion package, larded up with money for projects far away from storm-ravaged areas. When all is said and done, the combined cost of this bill and the initial $9.7 billion in aid – plus interest – will have increased the public debt by over $70 billion.

When writing disaster relief legislation, Congress must distinguish between immediate emergency response needs and non-emergency, longer-term priorities that should be considered within the constraints of the federal budget. As the nation once again bumps up against the debt ceiling, we’re reminded of the need to make tough choices when determining spending priorities – decisions that should occur as part of the traditional process of writing a budget, which the Senate has failed to do for nearly four years.

Instead of writing straightforward legislation focused on helping Sandy victims get back on their feet, the bill Congress approved goes far beyond the devastated areas. Using important disaster relief legislation to pass unrelated spending is exactly the kind of thing that has the American people so frustrated with Washington – and rightfully so.

For example, such “emergency” Sandy funding includes $2 million for roof repairs at the Smithsonian in Washington, $4 million for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and $16 billion that can be used in 47 states for past and future events from 2011 through 2013.

There’s $10 million to buy the FBI new vehicles when it already has plenty of vehicles to re-purpose and $50 million in un-requested funds for the National Park Service.

The bill also provides $1.7 billion in highway spending that is not restricted to Sandy-impacted states and may be used for the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. This kind of spending should be carefully considered on the merits and paid for – not stuffed into emergency legislation to help Sandy disaster victims.

When total Sandy spending is added up, it’s more than the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And it’s more than twice the annual budget of the U.S. Energy Department.

It’s important to understand that the legislation bypassed the committee process altogether, leaving no opportunity to carefully scrutinize spending. While we should move quickly to deliver aid that is urgently needed, non-emergency funding should be carefully reviewed and prioritized by relevant congressional committees – not blindly passed as part of an important emergency relief bill.

Finally, if a main goal of the Sandy relief legislation that passed the Senate was to quickly get resources into the hands of those who need it most, the final product fell short. Under the measure that passed, only 7 percent of funds – about $3.6 billion – would be spent over the next nine months. Seventy percent of the funding wouldn’t be spent until 2015 and beyond.

Without question, we should help Hurricane Sandy victims with emergency relief legislation. But the days of using a crisis to pass bloated bills stuffed with non-emergency spending further burying us in debt must end.

(Republican Kelly Ayotte is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.)

Legacy Comments8

I'll back Ayotte on this one - she was for the original $9B and then for the $24B to give direct aid to "victims" but then voted against a bloated $50B version of handouts to all the politicians friends in business. If it is a Sandy storm relief bill then it should be tied directly to storm damage and called that. If this is a new "Stimulus Spending Plan" then call it that and let the public view their opinion...... As for the FEMA and relief money, I say every homeowner should have to rebuild the house 10 feet above the flood line or this will just happen again next storm. You don't want to build above the flood line then the "property" is forever non-qualified for another assistance package - period.

Kelly Ayotte, she makes Judd Gregg look moderate.

Ayotte is a deficit hawk-oprite. Along with most of the Republican Party, she is using the deficit--much of it the combined result of fallen revenues from unwise tax cuts during the Bush era, lost revenue due to the Great Recession, and automatic economic stabilizers that kicked in response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, to justify attacks on Social Security and Medicare, along with other elements of our fraying social safety net. During her first campaign, she attacked the ACA--despite the fact it will, over the next decade, save money. She attacked the necessary (and too small stimulus measure). She supports a balanced budget amendment, goes into high dudgeon on earmarks (less than 1% of spending), and would cut all federal agencies by 20% (except presumably defense). Meanwhile, she's opposed to raising taxes at any time, despite the fact our tax rates are at historic lows as a % of GDP. If Ayotte had her way, the same kind of "austerity" programs that have devastated the European economies would occur here. Note that in the last quarter of 2012, the economy has stalled. This is a direct result of reduced federal government spending--old fashioned "pump-priming"--which puts people to work--teachers, police, contraction, etc.

We are currently in Obama's Democrat Depression right now. A major contraction in the (GDP) economy right after Obama was Re-elected by the Low information Voters (LoFoVos) Who would want to expand their business with the Obama administration that punishes success and rewards failure.

Van...can you tell me why it is a fact that the left in this country are simply incapable of telling the truth but extremely capable of Taxing and spending us through the roof

Unintentional irony from the poster who relies on "Newmax" and the U.K.'s "Telegraph" for "truth"? And who routinely treats opinion as fact-- if he agrees with it.

You should look up the definition of "depression". The stock market just topped 14,000 in the "Obama Depression". And there's been 35 months of private sector payroll gains. Speaking of "low information voters"--maybe you should check out these figures and charts on the Great Recession. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3252 While far too many are still out of work, that's because there hasn't been sufficient spending on targeted jobs bills. And we know why that is--Republican opposition to new stimulus spending--in defiance of economists' recommendations and in defiance of economic history--the Great Depression being the foremost example.

What a great time to prove a point Kelly, this is typical of he Republican's in Congress....have you looked at the damage from Sandy, and keep in mind it's winter. I don't recall anyone grandstanding against disaster relief for any tornadoes, natural disasters,etc. in other parts of the country. If I'm not mistaking Kelly, you even had the nerve to stick your hand out for some money for storm damage relief. You are a real profile in courage when it comes to denying victims of Sandy the badly relief they need, and as quiet as a church mouse when it comes to supporting the President's panel for common sense gun laws in lieu of the mass killings at Sandy Hook and across this country.....of course, you don't want to infringe on your Gun Lobby rating for the next election!

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