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 A Congressional Research Service report shows that there were always small amounts of money rescinded that had been appropriated for prior years’ emergencies — that was true for disasters and nondisasters, regular appropriations and emergency supplemental.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But a careful examination of the $23 billion rescinded for Katrina shows that it was not the kind of example Cantor thought it was.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 In other words, older emergency funding was rescinded and used to pay for redirected new emergency funding sent to agencies better equipped to spend it than FEMA.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 not by holding much of the government hostage along the way.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.