Congress and the president are passing a $19.1 billion federal disaster package that has one glaring problem: As usual, we’re paying for it by credit card.
The bill passed the House Monday, 354-58, after passing the Senate last month, 85-8. It was headed to the president, who will sign it. It will be used to respond to recent natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods in the Midwest, and wildfires in California. It includes additional money for Puerto Ricans – American citizens, it should never be forgotten – who are still recovering from Hurricane Rita in 2017.
The package includes $3 billion for military bases and Coast Guard facilities, $3 billion for farmers, and spending that’s meant to reduce the effects of future disasters. It started out as a $7.8 billion package last year.
All six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation voted yes, as most did. Members of Congress don’t like to vote against disaster funding because they know their state might be the next to need help. Arkansas’ turn surely is coming after this spring’s historic flooding.
The bill made its way through Congress after it was slowed because of an earlier attempt by the Trump administration to add funding for the Mexican border. Once it passed the Senate, House leaders wanted to pass it by unanimous consent while members weren’t in town. But it was delayed when three conservative Republicans blocked it, saying the vote should be recorded. One of those ended up voting for it.
Let’s assume for the sake of this column that every dime is needed and none of it will be wasted or spent for political purposes. That’s hard to imagine, but that’s not today’s point.
Today’s point is that, as is often the case, the bill is not offset with spending cuts elsewhere. Instead, it’s just another $19.1 billion ($24 billion counting interest) that’s being added to the national debt – a seemingly limitless credit card that as of Tuesday had a balance of $22 trillion. That’s almost $67,000 for every American, including children and babies born today who had no say in what they now owe.
One year ago Tuesday, the national debt was a little more than $21 trillion, meaning we’ve added almost $1 trillion in one year, or about $2,840 for each person’s share of the credit card.
This is not the way a responsible country, business or family operates. If this $19.1 billion is necessary, then the responsible thing to do is to find the money elsewhere – in fact, to already have had it budgeted.
Unfortunately, this disaster relief is considered “emergency,” spending, even if the “emergency” occurred in 2017. It’s not subject to the (obviously not very effective) rules that are meant to control federal spending.
The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget offered a plan to raise not just $19.1 billion, but $100 billion, though a combination of spending cuts and tax policy changes, including a $3 to $4 disaster relief surtax per barrel of oil, which would raise $50 billion.
Of course, the CRFB was ignored. But even if policymakers totally oppose parts of its proposal like the per barrel tax, finding $19.1 billion was doable. Following even part of the CRFB’s advice would ensure the federal government has more money set aside to react quickly to natural disasters, not wait two years, and without passing the bill down to our kids and grandkids.
As the past two weeks have reminded us here in Arkansas, natural disasters happen. They happen often, in fact, and they’re becoming more expensive. Even if you reject that climate change is occurring, there are always more of us, we’re more spread out every year, and we always have more stuff to break. So if it’s not hurricanes or floods, it’s going to be tornadoes or wildfires or earthquakes.
Congress and the president should acknowledge this reality, budget for it every year (as part of a balanced budget) and have money set aside to respond. That way, they’re not passing emergency spending two years after the emergency, and not making future taxpayers pay for it.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.