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

Last modified: 1/31/2013 12:45:17 AM
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.)

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