Congress is poised to vote on a Fiscal Year 2017 disaster supplemental to deal with the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria (and in some cases 2017 wildfires and other disasters and disasters from supplementals past).
The package the House Appropriations Committee released late Monday December 18, 2017 also included a disaster policy reform package that will put taxpayers on the hook for increased disaster spending in the future.
There’s also huge bailout for cotton growers that rewrites the last farm bill to get their subsidies.
But back to the disaster spending package.
We databased the whole thing and cross-walked the Administration’s $44 billion request (well, $43,996,221,914 by our count), which metastasized to a $81 billion ($80,969,712,000, but who’s counting – we are!).
A big winner was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that went from $15 million in construction funding to nearly $10.5 billion! Overall the agency went from $500 million to $12.1 billion.
To put the construction increase into perspective annual construction appropriations for the entire country is less than $2 billion.
Undercutting the benefit to the nation is that projects that typically would require a 35-50 percent non-federal cost-share would be fully federal – that means the $10 billion doesn’t get what it used to.
In fact, the tune “Anything you can do, I can do better” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun was going through our heads as we databased.
But it was as though the Appropriators were singing “Anything you can spend, I can spend more, I can spend much more than you.” Federal Highway Administration doubled to nearly $1.4 billion. Community Development Block Grants doubled to $25 billion (!) and goes to projects dealing with disasters back as far as Sandy (2012). Health and Human Services funds quadrupled to more than $1 billion. We can go on. Education more than doubled to $2.9 billion; Ag at $3.8 billion more than tripled.
A disaster supplemental is necessary. $35.8 billion has already been appropriated to help out in the affected regions, but it has largely been Disaster Relief and Community Development Block Grant funds. In order to recover, other agencies need to be funded and engaged. But there’s cash in this package that is not emergency. Funds that are available until 2019, 2021, or even 2022. The Corps construction funding is available until it is expended!
Some or all of this spending may be necessary, but it doesn’t all have to be spent now. The old saw that haste makes waste also applies disaster spending.
Similarly there are funds that future disaster related (some of the NOAA funding for mapping and sensing or the new CDBG mitigation program). The point is the appropriators are trying to jam this through to satisfy their members from the affected states. That’s not good policy and is a recipe for waste.
Speaking of waste: There are funds in here for Inspector Generals to review the spending from many of the agencies getting large amounts of cash. But not the Corps or Transportation by our reading. Also, the appropriators want a lot of reporting about progress and spending plans, but it doesn’t appear that the public will know where their tax dollars are going.
Unlike after Sandy when the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was named lead and provided some information at central web site (which truth be told was kind of weak), or the stimulus when the Recovery Act Transparency board created recovery.gov to track all the funds (which was pretty darn good), or after Katrina when DHS Inspector General Skinner served as the lead IG and clearinghouse of information, there does not appear to be public oversight or accountability to give taxpayers confidence that the money is being spent well.
But you can be sure we will be tracking the issue.