Two and a half months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast coast, the political fight over federal spending to assist the recovery efforts continues in Congress.
In the end, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will almost certainly get more than $60 billion in federal aid to help them recover and rebuild.
But efforts by some House members even as late as Monday night to add unrelated funds to the Sandy emergency aid bill provided an object lesson in why such emergency bills are perfect vehicles for adding more spending.
The House on Tuesday will be voting on both a larger Sandy bill, costing $33.7 billion, offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R- N.J., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, and a smaller one, costing $17 billion, offered by Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
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If the House were to pass both those bills and if one adds the $9.7 billion that the House OK’d on Jan. 4 in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program, the total aid, at least for now, would be $60.4 billion.
At Monday night’s hearing of the House Rules Committee that considered 92 amendments to the bill, Rogers explained that his version was “Sandy only. We tried to rifle-shot money to this immediate catastrophe…. We kept everything out of my bill except Sandy.”
Rogers reminded committee members that tens of billions of federal dollars have already been spent on helping people hurt by Sandy. “So far FEMA has been able to award states a total of $3.1 billion for the immediate needs that have been taking place while we were scouring the numbers (in the big Sandy relief bill),” he reported. “For example, New York has received $2.1 billion and New Jersey almost $900 million, Connecticut $38 million.”
Among the differences between Frelinghuysen’s bigger bill and Rogers’s smaller one: Frelinghuysen would provide more funding for the operations of federal agencies in the Sandy-affected states – even if the agency is not directly engaged in helping people or businesses hit by the storm. For instance, Frelinghuysen’s bill would provide $50 million to the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund for “expenses related to the consequences of Hurricane Sandy” and another $10 million for Sandy-related building and construction expenses for the federal prison system. Rogers’s bill does not include this funding.
Some House Republicans are still balking at the sheer size of the bills and at the near certainty that some money won’t be going directly to victims or towns hit by the storm.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, walks to a strategy session with GOP members, on Capitol Hill, Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at the start of the first full day of business for the new 113th Congress.
Rules Committee member Rep. Rob Woodall, R- Ga., said Monday night, “If we have an urgent need, let’s agree on that number we can agree on and let’s get it out the door with haste, but if we have a giant need, then let’s give it the slow and thoughtful scrutiny that we owe folks back home.”
He noted that a $60 billion bill for Sandy – to be given just a few days of debate -- would be larger than the normal appropriations bills for the State Department or the Homeland Security Department on which Congress deliberates for months.
Disaster relief bills are massive, have emotional appeal, and aren’t subject to as much scrutiny as spending bills that go through the normal Appropriations Committee process.
This bill has particular momentum since House Speaker John Boehner was so harshly criticized by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House members from the Northeast for not allowing a vote on a Sandy relief bill on New Years’ Eve.
And the bigger the emergency, the better the opportunity to add more money. Last June’s wildfires in Colorado and the 2011 tsunami in Japan both occurred months before Sandy and hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Sandy, but emergency bills are an opportunity to get aboard a moving train and get money for disasters in one’s own district.
• Rep. Cory Gardner, R- Colo. and other Colorado members proposed $125 million for watershed protection and flood mitigation around the nation, including about $20 million for areas in Colorado burned by last summer’s wildfires. This watershed protection money was in the Sandy bill that the Senate passed last month.
• Rep. Rick Larsen, D- Wash. proposed an amendment to allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration greater leeway over the $290 million in Sandy marine debris cleanup funds so that Pacific Coast states could get some of that money to cope with their own marine debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami.
“Just last month, an entire Japanese dock washed up on the Washington state coast,” Larsen said in a statement. “Our state and local governments do not have the resources to deal with this problem, which can cost as much as $4,300 per ton of debris that comes ashore.”
Ultimately the Rules Committee did not allow those two amendments to proceed to the House floor for Tuesday’s debate. It did allow a few amendments to try to offset the cost of the Sandy aid.
For example the House will consider a proposal by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R- S.C. to offset $17 billion in Sandy funding by a 1.63 percent across-the-board cut in non-Sandy discretionary funding.
“I’ve lived through a hurricane myself; I’ve had my office destroyed by a flood; I think this (emergency aid) is a proper function of the government….I just want to try to find a way to pay for it,” Mulvaney told the Rules Committee. “This is important; there is no question. Is it important enough to borrow money from China to do it, especially when we’re already borrowing money from China to do so many other things?”