“The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), interview with NBC’s Katy Tur, Aug. 28, 2017
Hypocrisy watch! Now that Houston and much of southeastern Texas is swamped by Hurricane Harvey, critics (including Northeastern lawmakers) have complained that Texas senators and members of Congress are seeking emergency federal aid but refused to back relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The defense, as shown in the quote above by Cruz, is that the Sandy legislation was a bad bill, filled with pork-barrel projects. A similar defense is indicated by a spokesman for Cruz’s colleague, Sen. John Cornyn (R) — that he did vote for Sandy aid, just not the bad bill that was signed into law.
So what’s going on here? Did the bill for Sandy have so much pork in it that two-thirds was unrelated to the disaster at hand?
Like many complex pieces of legislation, there were a number of votes and various versions of the emergency aid. The help for Sandy came in two parts — an uncontroversial vote in late 2012 for a $9.7 billion increase in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s borrowing power for flood relief, and then a $50.5 billion package that was approved in January 2013, without the votes of Texas Republicans (or many Republicans).
Many Republicans said that the emergency spending should have been offset by cuts elsewhere. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), at the time chairman of the Budget Committee, was one arguing the money needed to be offset. “This legislative abuse is an insult to families facing real emergencies in the wake of the storm,” he declared.
Many Republicans in the House voted for an alternative bill, crafted by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), now President Trump’s budget director, that would have funded a smaller emergency bill with a 1.63 percent across-the-board reduction in spending on discretionary programs. “It’s so important to me that I think we should pay for it,” he said. But his gambit was rejected.
(AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, did not directly respond to a question about whether Ryan would require funding for Harvey relief to be offset, as he had demanded in 2013. “We will help those affected by this terrible disaster,” she said. “The first step in that process is a formal request for resources from the administration.”)
So was the $50 billion bill filled with pork — two-thirds of which was unrelated to Sandy?
The Congressional Research Service issued a comprehensive report on the provisions, and it’s clear that virtually all of it was related to the damage caused by Sandy. There may have been some pork in an earlier Senate version, but many of those items were removed before final passage. There were also some items that appear to have been misunderstood.
Ryan, for instance, referred in a statement to “non-Sandy expenses,” such as “sand dunes at the Kennedy Space Center, highway repairs in the Virgin Islands, and roof repairs in Washington, D.C.” But Sandy was a storm that stretched far beyond New Jersey and New York as it raced up from the Caribbean.
The Smithsonian Institution suffered roof leaks from heavy winds and torrential rain, resulting in a $2 million request. The shoreline near Launch Pads 39A and B at the Kennedy Space Center also suffered major erosion, leaving the ocean less than a quarter-mile away, so $15 million was added to deal with that problem and repair a NASA facility on Wallops Island in Virginia that also was damaged by Sandy. We couldn’t find a line-item for Virgin Islands highway funding, so it appears to have been relatively minor.
The bill did wrap in some other 2012 disaster funding, including disasters that had been declared over Alaska Chinook salmon, New England groundfish, Mississippi fisheries and American Samoa bottomfish. Those are the fisheries that the Cornyn spokesman referenced — but they were disaster declarations. So one would think it would make sense to include relief in a disaster bill.
Some lawmakers complained about $100 million in funding for Head Start, but that was limited to about 100 facilities that had been damaged in New Jersey and New York.
This being Congress, one of course can find some eyebrow-raising provisions. In particular, there was $16 billion for the account that funds Community Development Block Grants, which were aimed at Sandy relief but also could be used for eligible disaster events in calendar years 2011, 2012 and 2013. So the main focus was Sandy, but the money could be moved to assist other disaster relief efforts over a three-year period.
Still, it’s all related to disaster relief. In the end, moreover, $13 billion, or more than 80 percent, went to areas affected by Sandy, according to a Housing and Urban Development Department accounting.
The bill also included tribal and state clean water and pollution mitigation grants ($600 million), funds to improve weather forecasting ($25 million), and upgrades to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft ($44.5 million). Those provisions were intended to prevent future weather-related disasters but arguably were not related to Sandy. But that’s less than 2 percent of the total.
When Cruz opposed the bill in 2013, he complained that “two-thirds of this spending is not remotely emergency; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 30% of the authorized funds would be spent in the next 20 months, and over a billion dollars will be spent as late as 2021.” We suspect he meant to say that, rather than incorrectly claim that two-thirds had “nothing to do” with Sandy.
The CBO score did indicate that the money would be spent relatively slowly — 30 percent by September 2014 and 80 percent by September 2017. But this is not unique to Sandy.
The CBO has explained that it based its analysis of the Sandy legislation on how quickly the government has spent such relief funds in the past. “The estimate . . . simply reflected historical patterns for the expenditure of disaster relief funds, most notably the pace of spending following the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005,” a CBO analyst posted on the agency blog in 2013. Debris removal is a big expense in the first year, and then it often takes several more years to rebuild infrastructure and develop post-disaster hazard mitigation, he noted.
Because of the slow payout, sequestration actually reduced the $50.5 billion by about $3.1 billion.
We sought a comment from Cruz’s staff, who understandably are busy. Update: As we suspected, Cruz’s reference to two-thirds was in reference to the slow spending of the funds, not pork, but that’s a misunderstanding of the CBO score. Spokeswoman Catherine Frazier cited $33 billion in long-term spending, including the $16 billion in Community Development Block Grants for a range of disasters. She flagged $10.9 billion in Federal Transit Administration aid, but according to CRS half of that was directed toward Sandy response and recovery efforts. Beside many of the line items described above, she also cited $122 million for Amtrak, of which about a quarter was for repairs of the Manhattan terminal and the rest for recovery and resiliency projects in the affected area.
“When regions face serious disasters causing extensive damage, the federal government has an obligation to assist with assets to address the emergency,” Frazier said. “Sen. Cruz strongly supports this role of government, but emergency bills should not be used for non-emergency spending and that unfortunately is what made up nearly 70 percent of the $50.5 billion HR 152 bill.”
The Pinocchio Test
Cruz is repeating a number of myths about the funding for Sandy disaster relief. The vast majority of the spending was for Hurricane Sandy, including elements (such as Smithsonian repairs) that some lawmakers incorrectly believed were unrelated to the storm. The slow rate of projected spending that Cruz had criticized at the time was actually based on how quickly the government had spent funds after previous major storms.
Cruz clearly misspoke about the “two-thirds” being pork. Still, it is wildly incorrect to claim that the bill was “filled with unrelated pork.” The bill was largely aimed at dealing with Sandy, along with relatively minor items to address other or future disasters. He earns Three Pinocchios.
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