WASHINGTON – As Hurricane Isaac bears down on the Gulf Coast, there should be plenty of money — some $1.5 billion — in federal disaster aid coffers, thanks, in part, to a new system that budgets help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur.
It's a system that Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee-to-be for vice president, had hoped to scrap as a way to make his House GOP budget look smaller by about $10 billion a year. Politely, party elders told him no way, at least for now.
Capitol Hill Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were the driving force behind the new disaster funding scheme and made it part of last summer's hard-fought budget pact with backing from President Barack Obama. Prior to that, the president had given short shrift to budgeting for disasters before a spate of them early last year, including tornadoes that ripped through Missouri and Alabama.
Congresses and administrations, after all, always had been fairly forthcoming with whatever disaster aid was needed after the fact, though the rise to power of tea party Republicans contributed to delays in providing disaster money last year.
The new system means disaster aid will not have to compete with other programs for financing, nor have to rely on less certain ad hoc funding at the height of a crisis.
Instead, disaster money was added on top of the official budget "cap" in line with the amounts budgeted in prior years.
It had been a different story earlier in the year as the government's chief disaster fund almost ran dry, thanks to foot-dragging by the White House and demands by tea party House Republicans that disaster aid be partly "paid for" with cuts to programs that Obama favored. The administration instead let the political pressure build as disaster accounts dwindled, sparking the ire of both his GOP rivals and allies like Landrieu, but turning the tables in its favor.
Months after agreeing to the new regime, Republican leaders still had to turn to procedural maneuvers to orchestrate passage of $8.8 billion in disaster money over the opposition of tea party lawmakers to keep the agreement. Ryan, the House Budget Committee's chairman, was among 66 Republicans opposing the measure.
"Some Republicans are still fighting this," Landrieu said in an interview Tuesday. "And it is kind of ironic that the storm was at some point headed towards Tampa during their convention. That would have been the irony of all ironies for this storm to hit Tampa when the Republicans were the ones saying 'we need to find offsets'" for disaster aid.
But, as has been proven time after time — especially as tornadoes and hurricanes rip through politically conservative states — even the sturdiest tea party supporters like the government when it comes to doling out money to storm victims for motels and other temporary housing and to help with house repairs.
Simply put, when disaster strikes, politicians respond — sometimes to the dismay of conservatives who see politicians milking disasters to win projects that couldn't fly on their own, like Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's failed bid six years ago for $700 million to relocate a rail line along the Gulf Coast so his state could build a new east-west highway.
The new system makes it more difficult for lawmakers to try such maneuvers, though such "pork barrel" tactics largely have been halted anyway with the GOP takeover of the House, with Republicans instituting a ban on so-called earmarks.
Many House Republicans, however, are unhappy with the new approach. Ryan earlier this year tried to gut it and eliminate $10 billion a year in disaster costs when putting together the House GOP budget.
But in doing so Ryan sideswiped a still-powerful Appropriations Committee that was still stinging from $19 billion in Budget Committee-induced cuts to last year's deal. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., protested to GOP leaders and won a gentleman's agreement that the new system would stay in place, at least for this year.
However, Ryan's point of view might still prevail if Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.
What Ryan proposes is that when disaster strikes, lawmakers scour the rest of the budget for savings to pay for rebuilding homes, roads and schools and helping small businesses. Put another way, instead of being an excuse to increase spending, disasters would offer an opportunity to make further cuts elsewhere in the government.
That's easier said than done. The portion of the budget that would face cuts — the day-to-day operating expenses for federal agencies — already has absorbed several rounds of cuts under GOP control of the House and faces almost a decade's worth of tight limits under last year's budget deal.
And should a huge disaster like Hurricane Katrina hit, it's simply unrealistic to find cuts of the magnitude required. Katrina ended up costing taxpayers more than $60 billion. Much of that money was approved when images of hurricane victims were still fresh in the minds of lawmakers and voters and as the George W. Bush administration continued to reel from its initial botched response.
It's also easier to summon the political fortitude to demand that disaster relief be paid for when the area you represent hasn't been hit. In particularly bad disaster years, political pressure accumulates as the toll of Midwestern floods, Southern tornadoes and coastal storms is felt by more and more voters and their representatives.
That's exactly what happened last year in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which prompted liberals like Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and tea party-backed Republicans like Rep. Nan Hayworth of New York to form a coalition to press for aid.