Now that the big hurricane is behind us — three days for Irene and six years for Katrina — the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running out of money and finds itself operating in a new political and fiscal climate that may be as treacherous as some of the disasters to which it must respond.
In the next few weeks, the agency faces the prospect of trying to mount a disaster response without enough funding because a newly cost-conscious Congress is reluctant to spend money on anything — including disasters — without offsetting it with cuts elsewhere.
Republicans, who control the House and have driven hard bargains on spending cuts all year, have insisted that there will be enough money for disaster relief. But they also pledged that additional spending will mean cuts in other areas.
“Yes, we’re going to find the money,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday in a television interview. “We’re just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so.”
That throws the disaster-relief effort into the heart of the spending wars that have dominated Washington for much of the past year, and recent history suggests that the battles will be acrimonious and protracted. Democrats immediately pounced on Cantor’s remarks, accusing the GOP of heartlessly withholding disaster-relief dollars.
“Instead of doing everything he can to help Virginians and people on the East Coast recover . . . Cantor is parading around on Fox News talking about how he will hold federal aid hostage unless he gets to slash the budget,” said David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Although the Republican position is not new, the argument may be trickier to make with regard to disaster relief, a subject that generally transcends partisan boundaries.
The politicians who have been heaping praise on FEMA in Hurricane Irene’s wake span the political spectrum.
“We have a new FEMA,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) declared Sunday, adding that the agency “is much stronger than the one we had during Hurricane Katrina.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a frequent critic of federal spending, also said: “So far, FEMA has been very responsive.”
After Katrina, Lieberman co-wrote legislation authorizing FEMA to deploy personnel and supplies in advance of storms — instead of waiting for states to request assistance. The changes came at the advice of state emergency management officials, including FEMA’s current director, Craig Fugate, who once served as Florida’s top emergency boss.
“If we believe it’s possible, we don’t get tied back in the first few hours and days of a disaster,” Fugate said Monday.
As Irene churned in the Caribbean early last week, FEMA began briefing lawmakers and governors on the storm’s potential effects.
Despite the preemptive work, FEMA warned over the weekend that its disaster-relief fund, used to reimburse local governments and individuals for the costs of cleanup and repairs, is running dangerously low. It plans to delay some payments for public assistance projects, but it will continue paying individuals and some eligible jurisdictions receiving federal storm aid.
Of the $130 billion in disaster-relief funding approved since 1990, $110 billion came in supplemental emergency spending. But the ongoing disputes over deficit reduction and spending cuts threaten what is a routine annual exercise to replenish FEMA’s coffers. The White House is yet to request supplemental dollars for the year.
House Republicans tucked $1 billion in additional funding for this year into a spending measure that also includes $2.65 billion in disaster-relief funding for fiscal 2012. The figure exceeds the $1.8 billion that President Obama requested for the next fiscal year, a move congressional Republicans said they took to avoid having to come up with more emergency dollars later.
But in doing so, Republicans shifted money from a program that lends money to auto manufacturers to build more energy-efficient cars and cut dollars from other FEMA programs. Both ideas are unacceptable to Senate Democrats.
“Does it really make sense to pay response and reconstruction costs for past disasters by reducing our capacity to prepare for or respond to future disasters?” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) asked in a July letter critical of the cuts the House made to replenish the disaster fund. Landrieu chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds FEMA.
If Congress cannot agree on a way to refill the disaster fund for this year, it could mean pitting victims of Irene against those who suffered in previous disasters, including the deadly tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in May. That prospect makes lawmakers nervous and could create some momentum for a resolution.
“Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri’s rebuilding efforts,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a Monday statement. “If FEMA can’t fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that’s unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented.”