The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Sandy Relief Bill is a Disaster

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


On November 18, 2012, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) told Politico that spending cuts triggered by the “fiscal cliff” projected to take effect on January 1 would be “devastating,” and that they would “really compromise our domestic security and our capacity to respond to emergencies and disasters like [Superstorm Sandy].”  For that bit of scare-mongering, Sen. Lieberman was named Citizens Against Government Waste’s (CAGW) Porker of the Month.

It is easy to dismiss critics of emergency and disaster relief spending as callous or uncharitable, but Chairman Lieberman should know better than anyone that the federal government already spends billions each year on emergency preparedness and response.  He should also know that any money which is squandered in that effort hurts both victims and taxpayers.  After all, it was Congress that reversed its ban and restored earmarking to DHS funding in fiscal year (FY) 2004, leading to such farsighted spending initiatives as a $50 million national exercise program and $100,000 for a child pornography tip line.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the FY 2013 Disaster Assistance Supplemental, drafted in response to Superstorm Sandy and currently being debated by the Senate, is such a disaster.  Its price tag of $60.4 billion nearly equals the highest estimates of the total economic damage caused by the storm.  Even worse, it includes hundreds of millions of dollars for programs unrelated to the storm, some of which are obviously ineffective in normal times, let alone when they are flooded with cash and ordered to spend it quickly.

An excellent place to cut the waste in the supplemental would be the $17 billion for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs).  CAGW, along with many other groups, has been critical of CDBGs on several occasions for their lack of accountability and failing to target the urban blight they were intended to mitigate.  Even President Obama, a former community organizer, has recommended reducing CDBG funding because “the demonstration of outcomes [is] difficult to measure and evaluate.”  For a program that made just $3.9 billion in disbursements in FY 2011, it is hard to imagine $17 billion being distributed without rampant waste.

The bill also provides $336 million for Amtrak (10 times President Obama’s request of $32 million), $150 million for fishery disaster relief, for which recipients in Alaska and Mississippi will be eligible, $50 million for the National Park Service’s historic preservation fund (twice its annual funding), and $50 million for employee retraining programs.  According to the Heritage Foundation’s Matt A. Mayer, there is $28 billion for “future disaster-mitigation projects on the East Coast,” which is a large component of the 64 percent of the funding that will be spent after 2014.  Whether or not these unrelated spending initiatives are worthwhile, they deserve more scrutiny than they will receive as part of an enormous Sandy relief bill being rushed through a lame-duck session of Congress.

In fact, there are questions about whether any of this money is necessary right now, since Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate told the Fiscal Times on December 4, 2012 that his agency will not run out of money until the early spring of 2013.  While that statement should not be interpreted as an excuse to delay relief funds indefinitely, the current provisions of the supplemental indicate that members of Congress are once again trying to load up a disaster bill with unrelated spending when they should be trying to pass a bill that only does the most good for those most in need.

-- Luke Gelber

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