The Political Optics of Disaster Relief

If you wanted to cut spending in Washington, the last thing you would do is create an additional federal spending bill.

But real world events intervene. Sometimes tragic. And that's the state of affairs Congress and the White House now face.

Historic flooding spawned by Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, wildfires in Texas and even a dramatic, rare, east coast earthquake bled the federal emergency coffers dry. That's to say nothing of an horrific tornado that devastated Joplin, MO this spring, twisters in Alabama and major flooding in the midwest and south.

These natural calamities drained the federal Disaster Relief Fund, dropping its balance well below a billion dollars earlier this summer.

So President Obama wrote to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) this week, asking for a "supplemental appropriations request for FY 2011 of $500 million and a budget amendment of FY 2012 of $4.6 billion."

Here's what that means:

Twelve annual spending bills fund the federal government. One bill pays for programs at the Department of Interior. Another handles Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. There's the Commerce, Justice, Science bill. And so on.

But in recent years, it's become standard for an administration to ask Congress for an additional spending bill, known as a "supplemental" or "supp" in Washington-speak. That's an extra bill on top of the other 12 annual funding measures.

This became de rigueur under President George W. Bush in the years following September 11th. The U.S. sprinted to bolster is defenses against terrorism. It launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Congress obviously hadn't approved money to combat terrorism, go to war or rebuild the Big Easy. So at Bush's request, Congress authored a string of annual supplemental spending measures to pay for these operations.

And so it went. And deficits exploded.

The voting public sent a specific message to Washington last fall: halt the spending. Republicans then poured onto Capitol Hill to do just that. This year, the House GOP leadership engineered a number of bills which made significant inroads into spending. Even so, some of the efforts weren't enough for some conservative lawmakers and those with strong ties to the tea party.

And then the natural disasters started.

Natural disasters happen every year. Floods. Tornadoes. Blizzards. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. They don't distinguish between Democratic or Republican districts. They hit the homes and businesses of people who donate to People for the American Way and those who sport perfect attendance at tea party gatherings.

Freshman Reps. Tom Marino (R-PA) and Lou Barletta (R-PA) skipped Mr. Obama's speech to a Joint Session of Congress Thursday due to the epic flooding in their districts.

"Flood Victims Urged to Call Washington Office," read a message posted on Marino's House webpage.

"Rest assured that I am fully committed to bringing the full force of the federal government to the 11th Congressional District so the people, businesses and municipalities here can recover," said Barletta in a news a release.

Vermont experienced some of the worst damage from Irene. The storm isolated entire communities into islands as the floodwaters washed out roadways and stranded people for days.

"Disaster assistance should not fall casualty to the relentless budget battles in Washington," said the state's lone Congressman, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT). "The storm was an act of God. How we fund the recovery effort is an act of Congress."

Which is where the president's request for a supplemental spending bill comes in. And regardless of fiscal orthodoxy, this is where it's hard for conservatives to oppose additional spending, lest voters interpret a resistance to the relief as calloused.

Long before Mr. Obama sent his additional spending request to Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) scheduled a vote on an emergency spending bill next week.

"Some of my Republican colleagues are trying to - I was going to say something vulgar and I'm not going to do that - are trying to cater to the tea party by holding up relief efforts," Reid said.

But earlier in the week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who represents the Congressional district where the epicenter of the earthquake was located, swung back hard at suggestions by reporters and Democrats that he and other GOPers might withhold disaster money unless Congress first approved budget cuts as offsets.

"I am not for taking hostages here. I just think we can act responsibly," Cantor said. "Unequivocally, I am for making sure people get their money."

After the president formally made his spending request to Congress Friday, Republicans tiptoed around the issue, hoping not to trigger a gale of negative press."There will be no delay in meeting the president's request and providing people the aid they need," said Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon.

Fallon also noted that when the House approved its Homeland Security spending bill in June, it infused the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $1 billion in disaster funds which were offset. The House did this by maneuvering money from a little-used Department of Energy program for "green" vehicles. However, that bill has not become law as the Senate just wrote its version of the same legislation a few days ago.

Late Friday, tea party loyalist Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced his state was also in need of flooding assistance. In an effort to hold the bottom line, Paul suggested Congress offset disaster funding with cuts to foreign aid.

"Americans should be a priority over nation-building projects overseas," Paul said in a statement. Regardless, the House Republican brass must decide how it wants to handle the president's request.

"We're taking a look at it," said a senior House GOP leadership aide. "We could file a CR (short for "Continuing Resolution," which is a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown) as early as next week and there are some discussions on what emergency dollars to add to it. But no decisions have been made."

And therein lies the rub.

The government's fiscal year ends September 30. The House and Senate are nowhere NEAR alignment on sending any of the 12 annual spending bills to President Obama for his signature. So unless Congress takes action soon, the government could face a shutdown.

But that's not going to happen.

Cantor already announced plans to move an interim funding bill (the CR) to the House floor for debate the week of September 19th. A senior source says that legislation will run government programs through November 18. So the question is whether the GOP leadership decides to put $500million in disaster funding from the president's request for this fiscal year into the CR to keep the government open or glom it all into a supplemental spending bill they tackle later this fall?

Secondly, one source indicated that depending on how things go passing the slate of spending bills for the new fiscal year, it's entirely possible that lawmakers could be forced to pass another stopgap measure before November 18th to keep the government open. That bill could even fund things until September 30, 2012. If that's the case, it's entirely possible Congressional leaders could fuse the overall $5.1 billion disaster request with the November legislation. That serves two purposes: it gets the emergency money out the door quickly and gives lawmakers a chance to search for potential offsets while not heaping an additional $5.1 billion onto the debt. Few will concede this, but from a sheer political standpoint, the disaster request actually gives fiscal hawks more incentive to search for cuts because they know they have to spend the $5.1 billion.

From another vantage point, no one has completely assessed the costs of Irene, Lee and the wildfires. So by announcing the spending request now, the White House could be trying to Velcro all of the money onto the CR which will be up in the House the week after next.

The optics of disaster relief have evolved into defining moments for politicians since Hurricane Katrina. No one wants a "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" moment. Conservative lawmakers who oppose emergency spending would do so at their own peril. It will be a fascinating exercise to see if any lawmakers vote no on the president's supplemental request if it does in fact hit the floor as a stand alone piece of legislation. It will be even more intriguing to see if there is a political consequence.

Probably the last thing fiscal conservatives and tea party loyalists back home want to hear is that Congress may have to pass an additional spending bill. They may not like it. But it's coming down the legislative trough in one form or another soon.

And Democrats and Republicans alike will probably vote for it.