The White House has requested $5.2 billion in disaster relief funds, a number that does not include damages caused by Hurricane Irene last week. Because of a provision tucked into the debt limit deal, Congress can go beyong the self-imposed spending cap by up to $11 billion for disaster relief, without offsets. So far, they have requested the $5.2 billion.
Before Thursday, the Obama had requested just $1.8 billion for the government’s main disaster relief accounting, generating complaints from lawmakers that billions more is needed to help states rebuild from past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring, as well as for Joplin, Mo., and the Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes last spring.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has less than $800 million in its disaster relief fund to pay for the immediate help needed to help victims of the flooding and wind damage from Irene through the end of September. The aid account is so low that new rebuilding projects have been put on hold to help victims of Irene and future disasters.
That means that longer-term rebuilding projects like schools and sewer systems have been frozen out to make sure there’s money to provide disaster victims with immediate help with food, water and shelter.
Just because Congress has the ability to appropriate up to $11 billion in unfunded disaster relief doesn’t mean they’ll do it. Eric Cantor has reiterated his belief that all disaster relief funding should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Democrats have rallied to highlight this as the height of callousness. Republican governors have disagreed with Cantor, saying the money should be appropriated immediately. GOP House members in areas affected by Hurricane Irene are in a tough spot, having to deny relief for their own constituents without offsets. MoveOn released the spot at the top criticizing Cantor’s stance. Even Paul Krugman piled on:
It turns out that in 2004, when his home state of Virginia was struck by Tropical Storm Gaston, Mr. Cantor voted against a bill that would have required the same pay-as-you-go rule that he now advocates.
But, as I see it, hypocrisy is a secondary issue here. The primary issue should be the extraordinary nihilism now on display by Mr. Cantor and his colleagues — their willingness to flout all the usual conventions of fair play and, well, decency in order to get what they want.
Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work.
But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met. That’s what happened with the debt-ceiling fight, and now it’s what’s happening over disaster aid. In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.
Krugman gets wonky later in the piece, saying that governments should spread out the burden of short bursts of spending like disaster relief over time. And of course, the government can borrow money at what amounts to a negative interest rate right now.