Make Disaster Spending Responsible Again

May 24, 2019

This Thursday the United States Senate passed a $19 billion disaster spending bill supplementing the already $7.9 billion dollars Congress appropriated for disaster relief in 2018.

This extra emergency spending has become a far too common an occurrence in Washington. In the last five years alone, Congress has spent more than $173 billion dollars outside the discretionary caps for emergency spending and disaster aid.

Not only are these extra billions in disaster spending not offset by spending cuts elsewhere, but these bills always come larded up with non-emergency waste. For example, the bill passed this week included $2.4 billion for the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program and another $55 million for the proven-failure Head Start program.

And don’t believe for a second that these unbudgeted disasters are caused by climate change. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, climate change has not caused any “detectable changes in flooding magnitude, duration, or frequency.” And there has been a “decreasing trend” in the number of hurricanes in the last decade.

So, if climate change isn’t driving the increase in emergency spending, what is? Well in 1988, Congress amended the Stafford Act to increase the amount of money local governments could get from each presidential disaster declaration. Since then the number of emergency declarations has skyrocketed. Before the change, the Reagan administration issued 28 disaster declarations a year. That rose to 43 a year under President H.W. Bush, 89 under President Clinton, 129 under President Bush, and 107 under President Obama.

We need to restore some responsibility and common sense to our emergency spending. In the private sector, businesses budget for rainy days and so should the federal government.

That is why I co-sponsored Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) Budgeting for Disasters Act, a bill that would require future disaster funding to fall within the statutory budget limits set by Congress. In addition to raising the threshold for waiving a budget point of order on emergency spending from 60 to 67, the bill also instructs the Government Accountability Office to produce a report identifying ways to tighten the federal qualifications for emergency declarations.

The federal government should not be able to avoid difficult financial realities by simply marking funds as emergency or disaster relief. We’ve seen in the last 5 years that Congress would rather borrow and spend instead of cutting wasteful, unnecessary programs and saving for a rainy day. While this bill would only impact a small portion of total federal spending, it is a step in the right direction.