Never let a serious crisis go to waste. That quote from Rahm Emanuel came during the dark days of the 2008 financial collapse, when Democrats wanted to make sure that the Congressional intervention of TARP carried with it plenty of “opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.”
Conservatives bring up Rahm’s Axiom every time it appears that the Barack Obama administration wants to exploit some momentary crisis to push an item from the lengthy liberal agenda. However, it seems that the White House might have competition for shameless exploitation of tragedy at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
Few Americans would quibble with the need to fund relief efforts in the wide swath of the country impacted by the superstorm. Millions of Americans live in the New York/New Jersey areas that took the brunt of the storm, and weeks have gone by without Congress acting to bolster the FEMA efforts to restore normalcy to one of the densest population areas of the nation.
The overall cost of the relief bill introduced in the Senate this week might raise a few eyebrows at $60.4 billion, especially as Obama and John Boehner grapple over the fiscal cliff and massive deficits, but no one doubts the need to act in a focused manner to repair the damage to the region and to the lives of the families victimized by Hurricane Sandy.
It’s the focus taxpayers should question. Instead of providing a focus on the victims, or a focus on the nation’s bottom line, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have focused on pork-barrel projects as far from Sandy’s impact zone as one gets in the United States.
That’s no joke. The bill spends $150 million for fisheries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, the New York Post reported this week. That is perhaps a drop in the bucket for a $60 billion funding request, but sheer nonsense in relation to disaster recovery on the Atlantic seaboard. Nor is that the only absurd request. The bill contains another $4 million for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, hundreds of miles from Sandy’s impact zone. Another $8 million goes to buy cars and other equipment for the Department of Homeland Security.
A whopping $336 million would go to Amtrak – about a quarter of the annual subsidy the government train service receives on an annual basis, according to the Heritage Foundation, which questions whether Amtrak took anywhere near that amount of damage from Hurricane Sandy. Further suspicion arises when considering that the original White House request for Amtrak emergency relief funds was $32 million – less than a tenth of what the bill now contains.
At least those requests would go to present-day needs. Various estimates abound for the amount of money being allocated to fund “mitigation” projects intended to prepare the US for future storms. The numbers range from $10 billion to $28 billion – anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent of the entire bill.
This might be money well spent in a normal annual budget, depending on what these “mitigation” projects actually propose to do. However, this funding request is for emergency assistance for victims who have waited weeks for help. If Congress wants to fund these “mitigation” projects, the money should be allocated in the normal budgeting process for Homeland Security.
Some of that money, reports the Heritage Foundation, comes in at $17 billion in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. Heritage rightly describes this as a “slush fund” for states, spent free from federal accountability. In the past, Heritage reports, “the CDBG program also has funded pork projects such as the Mark Twain House and Museum, the Salvador Dali Museum, and the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation.”
Again, one can debate the wisdom and administration of the CDBG program, but it’s not a vehicle for disaster relief, and yet it’s nearly 30 percent of the entire bill – and one has to question how much will go to actual Sandy relief.
More of the “mitigation” funds can be found in a $12 billion allocation to the Department of Transportation (which includes the supplemental Amtrak subsidies), ostensibly to repair public-transit systems. However, more than $5 billion can be reallocated to other DoT priorities, one of which could be to combat “the rise in sea levels,” according to the Heritage analysis.
So how much of the $60 billion will go to actual victims of Hurricane Sandy and to rebuild infrastructure directly impacted by the superstorm? Fox News estimates $47.4 billion, which looks like a rather generous analysis. Even so, that means that almost 25 percent of this spending is unrelated pork. The Senate wants to spend the bill with no offsets, meaning the funding will be added to the deficit. Bear in mind that the sequestration in the fiscal cliff will force the Pentagon to spend $50 billion a year less – money that Democrats and the President insisted had to be cut as part of the August 2011 debt-ceiling compromise.
It’s hard to fault New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for shrugging at “the practical realities of getting to 51 [votes],” as his concern is getting the relief funding his state needs as quickly as possible.
“[They] need more people vested in the legislation to increase the chances it will pass,” Cuomo explained to the New York Daily News. We hear that excuse for pork-barrel politics in normal budgeting, which is one reason that there is little opposition to massive spending on Capitol Hill. But disaster relief funding shouldn’t require almost $14 billion in pork to pass the US Senate.
Shame has long gone out of fashion in Washington DC, but perhaps this might get American voters angry enough to at least embarrass these Senators into responsible budgeting and actual disaster relief, rather than incumbency protection.