Obama cuts FEMA funding by 3 percent. Romney-Ryan cuts it by 40 percent. Or more. Or less.

October 30, 2012

Whether President Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the election, one thing seems clear: FEMA funding is likely to go down next year, but by very different orders of magnitude.

The president has proposed cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 2013 that would reduce overall funding by about 3 percent, with $1 billion trimmed from the Disaster Relief Fund but more money given to state and local programs.


President Obama met in August with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, left, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, right, to review the federal government’s preparations for Hurricane Irene. (Associated Press)

By comparison, Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan have supported far steeper cuts to discretionary spending overall—a broad pool of programs that includes FEMA funds and disaster relief. Although it's unclear whether the GOP ticket would specifically spare FEMA from broad-based cuts, Ryan's budget would make it harder to fund disaster relief because the aid would have to be offset by budget cuts elsewhere. Here's a closer look at what they've all proposed:

Obama's 2013 budget for FEMA

Under President Obama's 2013 budget proposal, FEMA's Disaster Relief Funds would be cut by $1 billion, bringing funding levels down to $6.1 billion from $7.1 billion in fiscal year 2012, a 14 percent cut. An administration official says the drop reflects decreasing tail-costs from Hurricane Katrina and stresses that the 2013 request is $500 million beyond the disaster fund's anticipated needs, according to a Congressional formula based on the cost of disaster aid.

Overall, Obama's budget would reduce FEMA funding by $453 million — a 3 percent cut from 2012 that would bring the agency's total funding down to $13.5 billion, according to FEMA's budget estimates. The Disaster Relief Fund would see the single biggest cutback, but staff salaries and expenses would also be cut by $200 million, along with smaller cuts to emergency food and shelter ($20 million) and radiological emergency preparedness ($39 million). However, funding for state and local programs and flood insurance would see a big uptick.

That said, FEMA is still protected from new funding cuts that other agencies now face. Under an agreement from last year's debt-ceiling deal, FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is exempt from the Budget Control Act's spending caps. And FEMA is also able to carry over unspent money from one year to the next, which boosted its disaster relief coffers from $7.1 billion to $7.8 billion this year.

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and FEMA

Romney and Ryan (in his House budget) also propose deep cuts to domestic spending. While Ryan doesn't single out FEMA for cuts, he doesn't exempt it either, suggesting that the agency could still be at risk for cutbacks under the House GOP.

The Ryan budget for 2013 would cut non-defense discretionary spending by 22 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. About one-third of that discretionary spending goes to state and local governments to support activities that include disaster relief. 

Ryan's 2013 budget doesn't go into much detail about how the big domestic cuts would be distributed, so it doesn't specify whether FEMA and its disaster fund would be spared. But if they are spared, then other programs in the non-defense discretionary category would have to be cut by more than 22 percent.

Obama sticks by the Budget Control Act's decision to exempt disaster funds from spending caps. But Ryan's budget "assumes that any future disaster-relief-designated spending relief will be fully offset within the discretionary levels provided in this resolution,” the report reads.

When asked whether FEMA would be spared from discretionary cuts under the House Republicans' budget, Ryan's campaign spokesman Brendan Buck pointed out that there were "no FEMA cuts in the House Budget." But he didn't specify whether the agency would be explicitly protected from the broad-based discretionary cuts. Ryan, for his part, has declined to single out specific agencies that would be subject to cuts, instead stressing "an across-the-board spending cut on what we call domestic discretionary spending immediately to help reduce the deficit," as he said this month on Ohio radio station WTOL.

Romney has likewise promised to push through dramatic spending cuts under his administration but hasn't specified what agencies and programs would lose funds. As Ezra Klein points out, Romney has vowed to cut federal spending to less than 20 percent of GDP by 2016 without touching entitlements or defense. That means that non-defense discretionary spending—which includes FEMA aid—would have to be reduced by an eye-popping 40 percent. 

The Romney campaign won't say whether FEMA would be spared from those cuts but stresses that the necessary funding would be available. "A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need. Period," says Buck. 

That ambiguity makes it impossible to determine exactly what would happen to FEMA funding and disaster relief under a Romney-Ryan administration, as neither Republican has put forward a budget that goes into as much detail as the president's. But overall, both Romney and Ryan have supported domestic spending cuts on a much larger scale than the president has proposed, while neither has explicitly said that FEMA would be spared. 

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