The Urgent Need for Disaster Relief Reform

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

The Urgent Need for Disaster Relief Reform

Jun 27th, 2019 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Justin Bogie

Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs

Justin Bogie serves as Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
It is past time for Congress to get serious about reforming the way it responds to disasters and national emergencies, and ensure that it is doing so in the most responsible way. Glowimages/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Earlier this month, Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to a massive disaster relief package, adding $19.1 billion to the national debt. 

Disaster and emergency spending should be reserved for truly unexpected events, not as an irresponsible spending spree.

The reforms offered by Romney and others are a good step toward making the federal government plan ahead for the next disaster. 

Since the passage of the Budget Control Act, disaster and emergency spending has nearly doubled compared to the five years prior to the law’s enactment. 

Earlier this month, Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to a massive disaster relief package, adding $19.1 billion to the national debt. 

Classified as “emergency” spending, much of the funding went toward congressional pet projects and as a means to circumvent the Budget Control Act spending caps. 

Disaster and emergency spending should be reserved for truly unexpected events, not as an irresponsible spending spree. It is past time for Congress to get serious about reforming the way it responds to disasters and national emergencies, and ensure that it is doing so in the most responsible way.

Some members of Congress are starting to pay attention to the disturbing explosion of disaster and emergency spending. 

Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Mike Braun, R-Ind.; and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., introduced a bill in May that would take a first step toward reforms. 

Their proposed Budgeting for Disasters Act would no longer allow a Budget Control Act cap adjustment for disaster relief or wildfire suppression funding. In other words, any new funding for these purposes would have to be paid for within the existing budget caps. 

The bill also raises the burden to designate funding as emergency spending to a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate, making it necessary to have a stronger consensus to approve supplemental funding. 

Congress acknowledgement of  the problem is a step in the right direction; however, more comprehensive reforms are necessary if our legislators want to make disaster response more effective and less costly for taxpayers. 

The first step should be to clearly define what an emergency is. Current law leaves far too much ambiguity that opens the process up to waste. 

Congress should also time-limit the availability of emergency funding. This will help to ensure that funds are targeted to immediate response and recovery needs. 

Legislative reforms to the Stafford Act and National Flood Insurance Program will also be necessary to encourage states to take more ownership of local disasters and move to a market-based insurance model.

The most recent disaster aid package included $2.4 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant. 

The grant program received over $35 billion in supplemental funding just last year, about 10 times its regular appropriation. Almost all of the 2018 funding is yet to be spent. 

The grant is a poorly targeted program whose effectiveness is questionable at best. Almost none of the emergency funding it received from its last batch has been drawn down by state and local authorities. This shows that it meets no rational definition of “emergency response.” 

Once used only sparingly in the era of the Budget Control Act, disaster and emergency designations have increasingly been used as a means to circumvent spending limits. 

Although the Budget Control Act of 2011 set spending limits on defense and nondefense discretionary spending through 2021, it allows for adjustments to be made for things such as war spending, disaster and emergency relief, and program integrity initiatives. 

Since the Budget Control Act’s passage, Congress has provided nearly $300 billion in disaster and emergency spending adjustments that weren’t paid for and didn’t count against the caps. 

In the five years prior to the Budget Control Act, Congress appropriated less than half that amount for disaster and emergency needs.

There’s no reason that emergency funding couldn’t be paid for by tightening the belt in other areas of the government. 

In 2018, Trump sent a $44 billion emergency funding request to Congress. The request included $59 billion in offsets that would have more than paid for the entire package. 

However, Congress flatly rejected the president’s approach, most likely because it would have taken those pay-fors off the table for other spending increases. 

The reforms offered by Romney and others are a good step toward making the federal government plan ahead for the next disaster. 

When American families are faced with unexpected expenses, they often have little choice but to tighten their purse strings and find a way to pay for it. That may mean skipping a planned vacation, eating out less, or putting off big purchases. 

Budgeting is about priorities. We all forgo the things we want at times in favor of the things we really need. The federal government shouldn’t be held to a different standard than the citizens it serves.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal