Congress Must Offset Disaster Spending

Congress Must Offset Disaster Spending
AP Photo/Noah Berger

With natural disasters ravaging different parts of the country and U.S. territories, Congress has passed two rounds of emergency spending this year, totaling over $35 billion. This is on top of another $16 billion in debt cancellation for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), bringing the total cost of the emergency spending to over $50 billion. In addition, the White House has recently requested another $44 billion to address ongoing recovery efforts. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have impacted Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, while California residents are still dealing with monstrous wildfires, resulting in damaged property and equipment as well as personnel costs — all of which the federal government cannot pay for without additional appropriations.

If the administration has its way, the final price tag for the three emergency funding rounds would total almost $100 billion—more than the discretionary spending amount requested by the Department of Veterans Affairs for its entire 2018 budget. Put another way, if the administration’s supplemental spending request were granted, it would equal the budgets of the Department of Labor, Justice, and State combined.

However, the White House has also requested offsets to these spending increases, pointing to cuts “for projects and activities that are not as high of a priority as responding to this year's hurricanes in a fiscally responsible manner.”. These offsets include canceling grants within the Department of Agriculture and cutting programs from the Department of State, among other things. The rationale is to cut programs that are not a priority now and find funding later, so as to make in helping disaster victims the top priority.

The storms and wildfires that have torn — or are still tearing — through the country are devastating and have completely changed the lives of millions of people. People must receive the resources they need to rebuild and move on from these tragedies. But Uncle Sam’s pocketbook isn’t endless: It’s irresponsible to continue funding relief efforts without looking at ways to offset these funding increases. Fortunately, there is enough waste in the federal government to offset additional spending.

Mark Walker (R-NC), Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, has advocated this policy. When Congress was considering the previous emergency package last October, Chairman Walker emphasized that “Congress should pay for these emergency packages by cutting spending in other areas that are less of a priority.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has also pointed to achievable offsets, including reforming flood insurance and cutting farm subsidies. There are bipartisan solutions that Congress can adopt to make offsets a reality. 

Unfortunately, the Senate has yet to pass any appropriations bills for the fiscal year that started October 1. After passing multiple continuing resolutions — and another one just around the corner — it’s clear that getting back to the budgeting process is not a priority. It’s been years since Congress has passed all the appropriations bills on time, and it doesn’t look like budget reform is on the horizon. But responsible budgeting includes finding offsets to pay for things that are truly necessary and time sensitive.

The budget of the federal government continues to grow every year, showing little sign of slowing. The national debt is now higher than the country’s GDP and the interest we pay on the debt will continue to grow over time. Continuing to spend on necessities, like emergency recovery, without also finding ways to cut elsewhere is dangerous to the fiscal balance of the United States. Congress should act now both to help Americans recover from catastrophic natural disasters and to curb government spending.

Jake Grant is the Outreach Director for the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He earned his BA in Political Science from San Diego State University in 2016. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Coalition to Reduce Spending.

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