Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Demagoguing disaster relief

Liberals are hooting and hollering about Eric Cantor's words that increased FEMA spending on natural disasters should be offset by cuts elsewhere instead of continually piling it into emergency spending. But such faux outrage ignores that the Republicans have actually proposed increased spending on disaster relief. And we're having more and more of these federally-funded declarations of natural disasters. President Obama has declared a natural disaster on an average of one every two and a half days. If we're having these many disasters, then it should be part of normal budgeting instead of falling into an ever-expanding emergency spending pile. As the WSJ reports, the GOP aren't saying that they don't want to fund natural disaster relief; they just want to cut spending elsewhere. And actually, contrary to how the Democrats are trying to portray Cantor's point, the GOP has proposed increased spending for disaster relief. It is the Democrats who want to block that in order to prevent those offsets to one of their favorite boondoggles - picking favored companies to whom they want to funnel money.
Here's the story: In June, House Republicans passed the 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill, which included an amendment adding $1 billion to the Disaster Relief Fund of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In a sensible move for taxpayers, the amendment offsets this new disaster funding by cutting spending on the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. This may ring a bell with readers as the funding conduit for one of Washington's adventures in crony capitalism.

In 2009, the Department of Energy announced that it would loan more than half a billion dollars through this program to a California-based company, Fisker Automotive, to make luxury electric cars. About a month after the loan package was conditionally approved, CEO Henrik Fisker and Joseph Biden appeared in the Vice President's hometown of Wilmington, Delaware to announce that Fisker would now be making some of its cars at the city's old General Motors factory.
So the Democrats are trying to block cuts in money to go to a company so that it can build electric cars (that few Americans seem to want to buy) in Joe Biden's home state.
One reason the House bill has less funding for Democratic priorities is because, even before the hurricane, Republicans had decided that the President's budget didn't have enough money for the Disaster Relief Fund. So they funded it at $850 million above the President's request. Then as they realized that the damage in places like Joplin, Missouri would put additional strain on the fund, the GOP added the amendment that provided still more disaster assistance and cut funding for Mr. Biden's beloved electric cars.

The White House hasn't asked for more funding, though White House budget director Jacob Lew wrote to lawmakers Thursday suggesting it could be well north of $5 billion. But so far Mr. Cantor is being blamed for opposing disaster relief because he has been trying to spend more than the President, and to place that above other spending priorities.

By the way, this political theater is having no impact on victims in need of help. The MSNBC gang may like to pretend that Mr. Cantor is stealing blankets from homeless flood victims, but the Washington debate is largely about funding for construction projects that may be years in the future.

Yes, FEMA has warned that its disaster fund is running low, a warning it issues almost annually. And the agency has said it won't approve new municipal construction projects until it gets more funding. But rebuilding, for example, a bridge in Vermont likely couldn't happen for months or years anyway as the locals debate designs, approve plans and conduct environmental reviews. The agency's emergency assistance—water and generators, or money for new windows or clothing—continues without interruption.

To have any hope of controlling spending, Congress has to make choices. That means having the fortitude to give up more corporate welfare to finance more urgent disaster relief.
But making choices and tradeoffs is something the liberals never seem to want to do. They'd prefer to mischaracterize and demagogue. It's all part of never letting a disaster go to waste, but it's not about actually finding a way to best spend limited federal resources. They'd prefer to just close their eyes and pretend that those resources are unlimited if only the greedy GOP would allow them to tax more rich people.