An Unenviable Choice: Disaster Relief Versus Spending Cuts

Voters dispatched a new squadron of lawmakers to Washington last fall to trim the fat.

Cleave the spending. Eliminate the waste. Get government out of the way.

"We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

So on Friday, a key House panel authorized an increase of $850 million to a major government agency. And that $850 million injection constitutes just a fraction of the $3 billion this agency could need to cover a potentially prodigious shortfall.


It's "appropriations season" on Capitol Hill. For the uninitiated, this is when the panels which control the federal purse strings begin authoring the bills that fund the federal government. Once a host of subcommittees and committees craft these measures (or "mark them up," as is the term of art on Capitol Hill), they send those measures to the floor for votes.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are arguably the most powerful panels in Congress. These committees determine how much each federal department and agency has to spend in a given fiscal year.

How much does the Food and Drug Administration get? And specifically how much will they devote to testing the efficacy of new drugs? Check with the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, the Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.

How much can the Supreme Court spend? Try the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Money matters. You can often determine the direction of government policy by monitoring how much the appropriators decide to spend on a given program or initiative.

Congress charges 12 Appropriations subcommittees to write 12 spending bills. The House, Senate and president must eventually approve the same version of these bills in order for those measures to become law and prevent that sector of the government from shutting down.

In theory, lawmakers and the president must finish all of this by September 30. Fiscal Year 2012 begins the next day. Otherwise, the government shuts down. Or a portion of the federal government that lacks operating funds closes because it's a political hot potato and lawmakers and the White House can't agree how much to spend.

Last year, Democrats in Congress never wrote a single appropriations bill. Congress and President Obama repeatedly extended deadlines past last September. This triggered a Mexican standoff which nearly produced a government shutdown in April.

Lawmakers no sooner figured out how to keep the government humming for FY ‘11 and they delved immediately into FY ‘12.

"Here we go again," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) wistfully.

The battle over FY ‘11 spending was tough. But in that instance, Republicans inherited the spending bills from Democrats. The GOP could only cut so far, particularly since the government was already well into the "new" fiscal year before they finally forged an agreement to keep the government operating.

But the work on the FY ‘12 appropriations bills marks the first time a Republican-led House, dominated by conservatives and tea party loyalists, will have a complete stab at slicing federal spending. This is where Republicans truly have a chance to make good on their campaign promises to ax the debt.

Late last week, Rogers and the Appropriations Committee released a set of numbers that would glaze over the eyes of any accountant worth his pocket protector. The numbers were something called 302(b) allocations.

Last month, the House adopted the so-called "Ryan Budget," a non-binding spending blueprint drawn up by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). And last week, Rogers took Ryan's framework and concocted the 302(b) allocations. In short, Ryan baked the pie. Rogers then sliced up the pie into 12 pieces. Each wedge of pie represented an individual Appropriations subcommittee that governs a set of federal government fiefdoms.

But what's important is how big Rogers rationed each pie slab.

To comply with the Ryan budget, Rogers needed to reduce spending by about $30 billion from what President Obama proposed. So Rogers offered up a series of spending chunks that trimmed non-defense federal spending by 11 percent.

"These are big-time cuts. They would take us back to the (FY) ‘06 levels for the cuts," boasted Rogers.

He noted that the agriculture spending bill is on target to absorb a 13 percent reduction. Rogers says transportation and housing programs could lose around 18 percent. Spending for the measure that funds the Departments of Labor and Health & Human Services reverts to FY ‘04 levels.

This is where the rubber hits the road. And Rogers is bracing for the fights.

"Members of Congress argue with each other?" the Kentucky Republican asked rhetorically. "Of course, there will be some disagreements. But I think when the dust settles, we'll be able to pass those bills and make responsible cuts."

The pruning is about to begin. But that's easier said than done. And a case study of the challenge ahead came during the subcommittee markup of the first FY ‘12 appropriations bill


The first incursion into curbing spending centered around the FY ‘12 Homeland Security Appropriations bill.

Republicans demanded limited cuts to the Homeland Security budget, snipping that department by only 2.6 percent. But this legislation could become a flashpoint in the next battle over spending cuts.

The most-significant, single tornado outbreak in 37 years annihilated towns across the south just a few weeks ago. Now floods are spilling across the same region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is scrambling to help people recover after these epic natural disasters. But money is drying up. And guess what government entity falls under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security? FEMA.

The lawmaker who will shepherd this legislation through Congress is none other than Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Aderholt's district lies squarely in the region that Mother Nature decimated.

No one knows how much the tornadoes will cost. No one knows how much the flooding will cost because that catastrophe is unfolding. But this double-whammy is draining FEMA. Which is why Aderholt's subcommittee infused FEMA with an extra $850 million late last week.

But that's far short of the $3 billion FEMA could need.

There's now talk on Capitol Hill that lawmakers may have to write what's called a "supplemental" appropriations bill, or a "supp" for short.

Prepping a "supp" means that in addition to crafting the 12 annual spending bills for FY ‘12, appropriators would also write an additional piece of legislation to cover the flooding and tornadoes.

All of this means additional spending.

Since the tornadoes struck, Aderholt says FEMA may need help through a supplemental package. But the Office of Management Budget says there's no plan to request an additional spending bill.

This all hinges on a menu of factors.

For starters, there's no a price tag. Lawmakers and the administration can make a better decision on the needs for a supplemental once a dollar figure rolls in. Secondly, no one wants to draft a supplemental spending bill that might be enough. And third, in an era of belt tightening, no one wants to write a bill that is too big.

Then, there are the political realities of the House floor.

You think tea party supporters demanded deep cuts in the last round? Consider what they expect from Republicans now after the deal that averted a government shutdown left a bad taste in the mouths of many conservatives. Plus, an "extra" spending bill simply adds to the debt, no matter how much it's needed after a series of natural disasters.

The worst-case scenario would be to put a supplemental spending bill on the floor, only to have it fail. That would give Democrats substantial material with which to work with. They could portray lawmakers who voted against the supplemental as "heartless" who let the disaster zones rot.

Of course, conservative, southern lawmakers who represent these ravaged areas could find themselves in the awkward position of requesting an infusion for FEMA...while at the same time demanding cuts elsewhere. Their political opponents are sure to take notice of any hint of duplicity.

Finally, even the Obama Administration and Democrats are wary of formulating an additional spending bill. If history is any guide, such packages have the potential to become "Christmas Trees." These are bills decorated with an array of spending baubles and ornaments devoted to causes besides the targets of the base legislation. And in order to garner support from lawmakers who don't represent constituents in the tornado or flood zones, a possible bill could require significant garnishment just to conjure up the votes.

Which brings us to the endgame for House Republicans.

If the GOP wants to cut spending, it can't do supplemental spending bills on top of the regular spending bills. That's part of the reason why the national debt exploded. After all, supplemental spending bills to bankroll the war on terror and operations in Iraq helped explode the debt over the past decade. In addition, loading up bills with extras to coax lawmakers to vote for additional spending is a thing of the past in Washington. And it's definitely not what the voters want.

Unless perhaps they're voters in the line of the twisters or floodwaters in Alabama and Louisiana.

Washington will soon know the cost of these natural disasters. Lawmakers must then weigh the demand for government assistance against the political demand to slash spending.

And we'll soon know which viewpoint prevails.