Natural Disasters

Congress Bickers Over Spending $13 or $14 Billion on Disaster Relief. They Should Spend Closer to $0.

The squabbling over federal disaster assistance reveals the bipartisan nature of wasteful spending.



Two multi-billion disaster relief bills failed in Congress on Tuesday, not because they contained a lot of unnecessary spending, but because lawmakers clashed on who should get the most federal pork.

On Tuesday, a Republican-backed $13.5 billion aid package, which includes billions in assistance for agricultural, housing, and education programs, failed on a procedural vote in the Senate. This was followed by another failed Senate vote for a $14 billion Democrat-backed bill, which managed to pass the House back in January.

The squabble is primarily over how much money to spend on Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Republicans have earmarked $600 million in nutritional assistance for the island. Democrats want hundreds of millions more to pay for drinking water infrastructure.

President Donald Trump has strongly resisted these demands, saying that the island territory has gotten enough from taxpayers.

"Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money," tweeted the president yesterday. "The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA."

The $91 billion claim is misleading, as it refers to the total expected payout Puerto Rico will receive from the federal government for Hurricane Maria-induced damages. Only $40 billion has been appropriated so far for the territory, of which about $11 billion has actually been spent.

The failure of the two bills yesterday sparked a war of words between lawmakers, both accusing the other side of prioritizing politics over people's lives.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Appropriations Committee, called Trump's opposition to disaster relief to Puerto Rico "racist" in comments to reporters. Sen. Sonny Perdue (R–Ga.) accused Democrats of using disaster victims "as pawns in their political game."

This heated bickering obscures the fact that the two bills put forward by Republicans and Democrats are incredibly similar. Indeed, both are full of needless and wasteful federal spending, says Chris Edwards, a tax policy scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"The new disaster relief bill is ridiculous," Edwards tells Reason, arguing that much of the disaster relief is duplicative of other federal support programs.

For example, both Republicans and Democrats authorize $3 billion in aid to cover farmers' crop and livestock losses for a range of weather events, including 2018's hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic activity, as well as cold snaps from 2017 that damaged blueberry and peach harvests.

Farmers who purchased crop insurance can have up to 90 percent of their crop losses covered by federal aid. Farmers who neglected to purchase otherwise available insurance for their crops can get up to 70 percent of their losses covered.

"Congress just passed a $900 billion farm bill last fall that covers a lot of these same risks that farmers face," Edwards says.

He also argues that federal disaster relief effectively crowds out state, local, and private responses to natural catastrophes. Local actors have little reason to save for the inevitable flood or hurricane if they can reliably expect a big pot of federal money to be approved whenever disaster strikes. Such poor planning leaves disaster victims at the mercy of slow-moving, highly politicized, and poorly targeted federal aid.

For example, a March Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that only a small portion had been spent of disaster recovery block grants awarded in 2017 to address that year's deadly hurricanes. Texas managed to spend only $18 million of the $5 billion awarded to it, while Puerto Rico had spent none of the $1.5 billion appropriated to it.

That GAO report blamed the ad hoc nature of the federal government's administration of these grants, which requires federal regulators to write individual rules for each grant given, and for recipients to fill out stacks of federal paper work to get access to their money—something many applicants lack the organizational capacity to do, especially following a disaster.

The goal behind all this paperwork is to prevent fraudulent claims, but as the GAO notes, the federal government still failed to adequately vet many grant applications, or prevent illegible recipients from receiving grants.

Both disaster relief bills being considered by Congress authorize an additional $1 billion in these disaster recovery block grants, along with a lot of other spending that doesn't have much to do with the immediate consequences of a disaster.

Head Start—the federal government's pre-school program—would get another $55 million from Congress' disaster relief package. A Department of Labor program that helps retrain workers laid off as the result of natural disasters would also get an additional $50 million.

There's bipartisan agreement that these line items should be in any disaster relief bill. The disagreement, ironically enough, appears to be how much to spend on Puerto Rico, the one area in the U.S. that probably is deserving of federal disaster assistance, given how poor the island is and how hard it was hit by Hurricane Maria.

The fact that disaster relief funds can easily become another political football is another argument in favor of relying more on state, local, and particularly private actors, who—from the Cajun navy to Walmart and Waffle House—often do a better job of addressing people's immediate needs.

"The federal government never used to have much of a role in natural disasters," says Edwards. "It was up to states and local governments and private charities to respond to natural disasters. That system worked pretty well."

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  1. As someone who underwrites a lot of disaster relief loans in the wake of hurricanes, ice storms, wind storms and floods – particularly for the electricity industry that serves poorer rural areas – its fun to read an article like this that argues for $0 in FEMA money for disaster relief. Especially right after I get off the phone with a CEO of a small company that has been hit with ice storms for 3 years in a row – wiping out its infrastructure for 40-80% of its area’s residents each time. “Save money” for disasters the author says. Save what money? A lot of these areas just had a astronomical damage occur and are having to spend enormous amounts of money repairing these systems.

    You know what happens when people don’t have electricity in the winter in the northern mid-west USA? People die. FEMA literally saves lives. They might be slow as hell (I’ve seen it take almost 3 years for disaster relief money to get delivered) but it is very vital to making sure other capital is available (such as the type I can provide). Without the FEMA money, I can’t provide the disaster recovery financing because I can’t show that it’ll ever be repaid. The FEMA money itself getting spent immediately is not the entire issue – its mere existance opens doors to private capital providing a stop-gap in disaster areas while the government gets its shit together and finally makes a disbursement.

    1. That is all well and fine, but I fail to find in your post how it my or anyone else’s responsibility to provide free money to businesses and/or person’s for their poor location decisions.

      1. Yes, I know you have your principles and you love to occupy this hypothetical world in which we do not need people living in areas for farming, fishing, etc. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here making sure we have the capital to rebuild destroyed electrical systems so we can keep people from freezing to death.

        But you’re so virtuous, congrats.

        1. Huh. The column didn’t say zero government money should go to disaster relief, it said zero federal money should go to disaster relief. Now explain why it is suddenly the responsibility of the federal government, since for two hundred years disaster aid came from state and local agencies. While you’re at it, why don’t you point out the clause in the constitution that authorizes the federal government to make these payments.

          1. Huh. I was responding to Billy Bones reply, not the column – I thought that was obvious by my hitting “reply” to Billy Bones.

            But ignoring that oversight on your part – I think you have a totally legitimate point that merits further discussion. Why does the federal government do this? What historical circumstances led to us thinking that FEMA was a better way to do it instead of states? Were states even bothering stepping up to the plate before FEMA was established? Was FEMA a power grab or was it a practical necessity?

            Are state budgets (especially in poorer rural states) expansive enough to handle state-wide storm damage during recessions?

            Its a legitimate conversation.

            1. FEMA was originally set up to handle disasters that overwhelm local and state resources, but in the 40 years since then its gone from being a supplement to a replacement for state level responses. You can see this in when governors declare states of emergency. It used to be they declare when their resources overwhelmed, now they declare before the storm even hits

              If we are going to use federal funds for disaster relief I think it would be better to allocate the funds directly to the states on annual basis, and let them utilize the funds as needed when the disasters happen. Maybe do a matching program where the federal government matches state-level allocations for disaster relief funds

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      2. Google paid for every week online work from home 8000 to 10000 dollars.i have received first month $24961 and $35274 in my last month paycheck from Google and i work 3 to 5 hours a day in my spare time easily from home. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it..go to this site for more details…

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    2. So do you think that the existence of FEMA and the idea that they will pay for destroyed infrastructure may be a bit of a moral hazard? Do you think it incentivizes people to build certain infrastructure in certain places without saving money for a literal rainy/icy/windy day or to have the proper private insurance because FEMA is the real insurance backstop. It makes no sense to properly plan for these events yourself if you know that FEMA will eventually bail you out.

    3. FEMA only seemed to provide low interest loans for our hurricane. The town did cleanup and then FEMA was to reimburse. This article is naive.

    4. The problem as I see it is the nature of that federal assistance. If it were merely serving as a reinsurer for states/locals – or an emergency backup for interstate compacts that deal with disasters/emergencies (and at least two exist); then I can see both the value and the constitutionality of that. But the way the decisions are being made right now is creating a moral hazard (where states can slough off their own responsibilities much the same way they do for ‘maintenance’) and encouraging micromanaging/politicization and the usual sorts of turf-building and cronyism that occur when a federal department gets involved in things.

  2. Well, damn. It took 2 full years, but I finally agree with Donnie on something. The vast majority of disaster relief needs to go away (at the Fed level at least). Every person knows when they move to a particular area what the weather risks are. Live in Kansas, expect tornadoes. Live in Florida, you are going to be hit by a hurricane. You accepted the risk, now bear the brunt of your decision.

    1. Hypothetical and totally impractical. Unless you’re okay with a lot of people dying just for the sake of living in an area where they can produce food for you to eat. But you know, principles!!

      1. Actually, I am quite okay with the idea of people dying. Happens everyday and will happen to everyone of us. Something out of the ordinary happens, I can see stepping in and helping out. But, in my purview at least, these programs encourage people to take unnecessary risks or fail to properly prepare. And we get our food globally these days, so even if one region is damaged by weather, we may have a brief shortage, but we will not starve.

        1. “Actually, I am quite okay with the idea of people dying. ”

          Oh, okay then. I’ll take the opposite position and say we should try to preserve the lives of our neighbors and fellow countrymen.

          Since our positions are irreconcilable – me being someone that advocates for the flourishing of life, health and prosperity of my countrymen – and you being someone that is “quite okay with the idea of people dying” – I suppose we can end our conversation here.

          Take care.

          1. Advocating for ” the flourishing of life, health and prosperity of my countrymen” is irreconcilable with advocating for an increasing larger, more expansive, and powerful federal government/agencies.

          2. “Oh, okay then. I’ll take the opposite position and say we should try to preserve the lives of our neighbors and fellow countrymen.”

            Goody for you. Pay for it yourself, or fuck off, slaver.

      2. When Katrina hit, the guy I was working for was all bent out of shape about what recovery was going to cost. After all, they knew they were below sea level. So I asked him about what should happen the next time the Ohio River flooded. Oh that was different, he said. Never could say why…

  3. Disaster relief should be a state and local issue.
    Oh, wait.
    That would put a lot of FEMA employees out of work, and they won’t be able to have those cushy jobs with high pay, outrageous pensions and extravagant benefits that we pay for.
    My bad.

    1. But they’re doing a heckuva job.

  4. I’d like to see an insurance fund set up by the states. Each contributes a % of their yearly GNP (or is that GSP?) which gives you access to pooled funds you must pay back No free lunch. Let governors tell their constituents they decided not to participate.

    1. …that’s a damn good idea. Shit.

      1. Props to TripK for coming around, at least a little.

        For the rest of us, look at which arguments work, and which don’t. “F*** off Slaver” didn’t work, but SimpleRules’ idea did.

    2. If this is insurance fund is a viable idea, why is it necessary to be set up by the state? What evidence do you have that private insurance is unable to fully meet the demands you predict?

      Note by the way that demagogues complaining that “premiums are too high” is not evidence. The percentage necessary to cover all the losses is identical whether money is collected by government bureaucrats or by a private company.

  5. Alt text:
    “What Congress looks like when it’s in session”

  6. BTW, the Oroville Dam’s repaired overflow is being ‘tested’ simply because moonbeam’s ‘permanent CA drought’ has been shown to be one of his normal bullshit claims; we’re soaked, and they have to keep some headroom on the reservoir capacity.
    Anyhow, the stories are all larded with ‘Trump is a big poopyhead, since his administration only approved $X for the repair!’, but usually followed by the admission that CA’s infrastructure in general is suffering as a result of the money being diverted to ‘other priorities’:That fucking moonbeam’s choo-choo, among them….
    IOW’s the gripe is the US taxpayers won’t bail CA out of piss-poor management for the last 30 years.

  7. Forgive me if I’m confused, but isn’t Puerto Rico part of the US? So how does it get money *from* the US any more than any other state or territory?

    1. It is indeed part of the US, and the government officials there are just as corrupt, selfish, and brain dead as in the rest of the country. $40 billion received so far to rebuild a tiny island, and it’s had almost no visible impact? No doubt they need to complete more environmental impact studies before they can clean up debris!

      Had the $40 billion been given directly to the people stead of their “overlords,” you’d probably already would have had the entire pace rebuilt to hurricane-proof standards long before now.

    2. It is part of the US.

      I’ve seen some Trump haters dinging Trump for this, but for myself, I’ll grant that he meant “from the rest of the USA”.

      This is a fine example (among countless others) of why I don’t like this presidential tweeting stuff, unless he were to sent carefully edited & reviewed tweets?but then that doesn’t seem to be the nature of the medium.

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  9. My last month paycheck was for 11000 dollars? All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day that I got from this agency I discovered over the internet and they paid me for it 95 bucks every hour?


  10. Counter-Productive

    Taxpayers from Nebraska relieving residents of Florida, when a hurricane strikes, from the adverse, financial consequences of foolishly building on barrier-island beach-fronts may seem “humanitarian”. Actually, it is the opposite. It rewards undesirable behavior. Good politics. Bad economics. Counter-productive contingency-management.

    Excerpt from the novel, Retribution Fever (2018):
    These United States shall not be liable for the debts of any State, Territory, or locality, nor shall these United States relieve those debts in any way, whatsoever. In cases of natural or manmade disasters other than consequences of acts of war by a foreign power, the federal government shall not attempt to make whole nor to restore partially areas so affected other than for purposes of interstate transportation and shall not offer insurance in any form, whatsoever, against such disasters.

  11. If you believe that it’s the federal government’s job to help replace/rebuild/make whole everyone after a disaster then you have to accept a certain amount of waste & fraud will happen. To set up procedures making it take years to get the money allocated defeats the stated purpose of the “emergency” funding. Politicians are more afraid of the effect that headline about how much money was wasted will have on their re-election campaign than they are concerned about the actual well being of the people they are supposedly trying to help.

  12. Yeah, I can see stepping in and helping out, but, in my purview at least, these programs encourage people to take unnecessary risks or fail to properly prepare.

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