"If it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break." - Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks, 1971
Swells of water now lap against the walls of a levee constructed by conservative Republicans and tea party-backed lawmakers. After their 2010 electoral mandate, conservatives erected a dam to brace against a tide of federal spending. But a spate of floods and vicious tornadoes is testing the strength of this levee as lawmakers try to balance the need for federal assistance against campaign pledges to curb spending.
It often starts like this.
There's a series of natural disasters. Or 9-11. Or war. And Congress decides it needs to approve an additional spending bill to fund a critical area of the federal government in mid-year.
Lawmakers fillet the federal budget into 12 sections, each one receiving an annual spending measure.
But over the past 11 years, Congress has approved 16 extra spending bills, known as "supplementals," totaling nearly $1 trillion.
$20 billion just after September 11th. $79 billion in 2003 for the war in Iraq. $10.5 billion in 2005 to respond to Hurricane Katrina.
And in each case, some lawmakers make a compelling case for tacking on additional spending.
It's essential for the troops. The people of New Orleans are desperate.
And on Tuesday afternoon, the process started again.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) chairs the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. That panel controls the purse strings for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Twisters ravaged parts of Aderholt's district and other sections of Alabama just a few weeks ago.
Then came floods, up and down the Mississippi River. The federal government even blew up a major levee in Missouri to alleviate upstream flooding.
And then a monster tornado sacked Joplin, MO, Sunday night.
"It's going to be close," said Aderholt, when asked if FEMA had enough money to make it through September 30, the end of the government's fiscal year.
On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee "marked-up" or wrote the final version of a measure to fund Homeland Security programs and FEMA. No one has tallied the cost of the storms in Alabama. There's no price tag on the flooding. And it's way too early to ring up the damages in Missouri. But Aderholt and others wanted to make sure FEMA had enough money for now. So during the markup session, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle injected $1 billion into FEMA's budget. Aderholt and others believe that on top of the $1 billion, they'll also have to craft an entirely separate supplemental spending bill to pay for the natural disasters. And perhaps those yet to come.
"Hurricane season is just days away," warned Aderholt ominously.
Not a single lawmaker expressed reservation and the Appropriations Committee adopted Aderholt's request by voice vote.
There's a reason why no one objected.
This year, it's flooding and tornadoes in the South and Midwest. But come summertime, it could be hurricanes in Florida and North Carolina. Or earthquakes in California. Wildfires in the west.
Fiscal hawks are loathe to vote against such emergency measures. First, they want to help those in need. And second, they know their district or state could be next.
Now here's where it gets interesting.
In tight budget times, lawmakers are intent to find "pay-fors" to cover the additional costs of the natural disasters. In the case of the $1 billion for FEMA, the Appropriations Committee transferred unused funds from an Energy Department "green vehicle" program. Still, this money is not for NEXT fiscal year. It's for THIS fiscal year. The fiscal year for which Congress and President Obama just finished doing battle. The fiscal year where Republicans successfully pared $61 billion out of the budget.
An alternative interpretation, but inaccurate interpretation of Tuesday's $1 billion FEMA infusion means the budget deal dwindled to just $60 billion.
That's they way it would appear on a balance sheet if you're scoring at home. But if you're scoring in Congress, it doesn't work that way.
Congress considers FEMA's $1 billion as an emergency. By definition, all emergency money is "off-budget." It's real dollars and cents going out the door. But Congress doesn't count it against the bottom line.
It's kind of like a pitcher's Earned Run Average (ERA) in baseball. If a pitcher yields a run, it counts on the scoreboard. However, if someone committed an error that allowed that run to score, it's not marked against the pitcher's ERA. Regardless, the run crossed the plate and shows up on the scoreboard.
Spending is spending. And a budgetary gimmick like this is precisely what so incensed the electorate last fall.
Now there's a question of forging a supplemental spending bill once all of the disasters are paid for. Aderholt has talked about the need for an additional spending bill to cover FEMA. And he's not the only one.
"$1 billion isn't going to do it," conceded Rep. David Price (D-NC), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. "We are going to need the administration to offer a supplemental request."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) knows how sensitive this is.
"If there is support for a supplemental, it would be accompanied by support for having pay-fors to that supplemental," said Cantor on Monday.
Note that Cantor said "if there is support for a supplemental." Locating that support could be a problem.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and represents the district right next to where the tornadoes hit Sunday. Emerson conceded it may be hard to court conservatives whose districts aren't experiencing a natural disaster.
"We can try and be responsible, but people need money," Emerson said. "While I think it's important we do everything to offset (the additional FEMA spending), I don't think we can find all that money."
When it's a challenge to cobble together votes for a supplemental spending bill, lawmakers often turn to a time-honored tradition on Capitol Hill. They begin to decorate the supplemental with all sorts of baubles and ornaments to attract the support of reluctant lawmakers. But times have changed in Washington. And most conservatives are unwilling to go that route.
"These bills become Christmas trees," said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA). "You end up having a bunch of items that having nothing to do with the bill."
Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA) is a freshman who represents Cajun country and the mouth of the Mississippi River. Some of the most serious flooding has washed over parts of Landry's southern Louisiana district. Landry knows what's essential to recover from the floods.
"If we can do it without a supplemental, sure," Landry said. "But I don't now how we can do it."
The Homeland Security spending bill and FEMA presents one set of issues. But a more vexing issue could lie in the annual Energy and Water spending bill.
That package funds the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is in charge of building and maintaining thousands of dams, levees, locks and flood control projects around the country. And prior to this year, the Corps' budget mostly came from earmarks.
House Republicans banned earmarks at the beginning of this Congress. The GOP defines an earmark as "a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process."
Landry says the government needs to dredge the Mississippi River once the floodwaters recede. There will be dozens of levees and dams in need of repair. The levee the government blew up in Missouri could cost a couple of hundred million dollars alone. But how does Congress designate these projects for the Army Corps of Engineers if earmarks are outlawed? How would Congress ask the Corps to dredge the Mississippi? In other words, lawmakers would be setting aside a specific amount of money and targeting it for a specific project in a specific space.
"Go up and down the Mississippi and ask people if they think fixing a lock is an earmark or a necessity," said Landry. "Dredging the Mississippi isn't an earmark. That's a national priority."
19-term Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is one Republican who disagrees with the earmark disarmament. Young believes the Army Corps of Engineers needs specificity from Congress.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," said Young of the GOP's decision to forgo earmarks. "The biggest challenge is to convince members who are new that earmarks aren't evil."
Former Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) chaired the Appropriations Committee before retiring last term after more than 40 years in Congress. Obey says he warned colleagues that it would be tough to approve certain bills without earmarks.
"Sooner or later your campaign rhetoric will run smack-dab into reality," Obey said. "They will try to change definitions. What was an earmark last year won't be an earmark this year."
Obey agrees with Young that the earmark prohibition binds Congress. Especially when it comes to addressing specific needs following national disasters or emergencies. The Wisconsin Democrat is contemptuous of upstart lawmakers who he says played to the gallery on earmarks and fiscal discipline to win the midterm elections.
"Pretty soon we'll know if these yahoos knew what they were talking about," ventured Obey.