FEMA Funding Becomes Political Football

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Natural disasters often leave great devastation in their wake, shattering lives and challenging resources and infrastructure in unimaginable ways, and in the U.S., states rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help pick up the pieces and pay for damage. That agency is now running dangerously short on cash, but it is very quickly becoming a political football in Congress.

Allegations are flying, but not all of the statements being tossed about are accurate, contributing to a toxic environment when it comes to getting much-needed funding to a critical agency.

First off, FEMA is not "flat broke," as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has declared repeatedly to reporters. According to FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen, the agency, to date, has $377 million in its coffers.

That said, given the magnitude of disasters that have rocked the nation, from fires to floods, FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF -- pronounced "Derf" in Congress-ese) needs an infusion of money very soon, in fact, by the 26th of this month, or it could run out of money.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told Reid as much Tuesday night. That shortage in the accounts, according to FEMA officials, is unprecedented, though the agency has, on numerous occasions and under different administrations, been taken below the critical $1 billion mark.

After that threshold is breached, FEMA operates on what's called an "immediate needs funding" status. But Racusen tells Fox that despite that designation, much of what FEMA does gets funded anyway. It's just a way of monitoring the funds more closely, while not approving any new projects.

Here is where another misstatement is being repeated by many.

Reid said Tuesday, "Joplin, Missouri - they've stopped all the work there," referencing the town that was ravaged by a tornado in May.

But that is not actually the case.

Under an "immediate needs" posture, individual assistance, areas under an immediate disaster declaration, already-approved projects -- these all get money. Plenty of work is still going on in Joplin and elsewhere, according to FEMA officials. Money had gone out the door before FEMA hit its "immediate needs funding" status in August, but anyone seeking new monies will have to wait for Congressional action.

And wait they could very well do.

The Administration finally made a request of Congress on September 9, one for an emergency Fiscal Year 2011 infusion of $500 million. It also requested, for FY 2012: $4.6 billion, that coming on top of the already-requested $1.8 billion.

The House and Senate, however, are taking vastly different approaches.

Reid chose to leap-frog the appropriations process and introduce a bill that packs in both FY '11 and '12 funding, a $6.9 billion disaster relief bill, a bid that his own aides say puts Republicans on the spot, forced to make a difficult choice between deficit reduction and constituent needs. Indeed, a difficult position for some.

The Reid gambit has run into a GOP roadblock, however.

Some Republicans, like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a fiscal hawk known as "Dr. No," have made it clear that they will insist that the entire package be offset with spending cuts in other areas.

"Congress' refusal to live within its means has created an economic disaster and a debt that is now our greatest national security threat," Coburn spokesman John Hart e-mailed to reporters, adding, "Dr. Coburn makes no apologies for doing everything in his power to force his colleagues to cut wasteful spending instead of inflicting further damage on our economy through unnecessary borrowing."

Coburn's aide pointed to one area of potential offset arising from a nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) report earlier this year that pointed to massive federal duplication across all areas of government that could save taxpayers as much as $200 billion, if eliminated.

But, Democrats have charged that disasters are emergencies and should not become victims of the larger fight over deficit reduction.

"My Republican colleagues never complain about all these wars going on totally unpaid for," Reid noted Tuesday. "We're spending billions of dollars a week in Iraq and Afghanistan of borrowed money. Shouldn't we be paying -- spending some money instead of Iraq and Afghanistan to take care of the devastation that's hit communities all over America?"

It's unusual to circumvent the appropriations process as Reid has, grabbing FEMA funds from a larger, annual spending bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security. But Democrats say they did so, because the new fiscal year is just around the corner, beginning on October 1, and FEMA is in need of the money.

The House has opted for a different approach. It has put the Administration's FY2011 $500 million FEMA request into a bill that funds the government through the remainder of the year, one that would avert a government shutdown after September 30. If approved, the agency would get the additional funds and continue to operate at current spending levels through year's end.

It's unclear how House and Senate leaders will get out of this problem, but time is clearly of the essence.

At a Twitter town hall meeting today, Reid told one questioner, "We're going to get the disaster relief bill done. It's just a question of how we get it done."

To be clear, this is not the emergency that it appears to be with FEMA, rather, once again, it is one created by politicians.

Racusen made clear, "FEMA has been providing Congress with daily updates on the status of the Disaster Relief Fund."