Hurricane Irene is approaching Washington, D.C. right now, but the high political winds of fiscal austerity hit long ago. As federal programs go, one would assume disaster relief is the least controversial way to spend government dollars, especially just a few years removed from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
But in a time of outrage at trillion-dollar deficits and perceived largesse, some House Republicans have sought to change the way Congress funds relief efforts, proposing after the Joplin, Mo. tornado that disaster money be offset by unrelated budget cutting or tax tax hikes. Politico reported in May:
Disasters will no longer be considered "emergencies" if conservatives win this battle to redefine the way Congress funds aid packages for states and cities stricken by natural and man-made catastrophes. ...
On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made clear that offsets would be part of the discussion for any aid package in the wake of a tornado that killed more than 100 people in Missouri. By Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee had approved a $1 billion package for disaster relief - certainly less than will ultimately be needed for flood- and tornado-ravaged states - that is fully offset by cuts to an unrelated energy-efficient vehicle account.
The word "emergency" is key. Under "pay-go" budget rules, Congress must pay for all of its new spending -- except in cases of "emergency." To the chagrin of Republicans, the definition of "emergency" tends to expand and contract.
Over the next several months, Republican presidential candidates will be traveling in and out of South Carolina, one of the states expected to be hit by Irene. Even fiscally conservative residents probably won't like the idea of budgetary strings attached to relief funding. It will be difficult for presidential candidates seeking South Carolina votes -- or the backing of key South Carolina Republicans -- to stand by the pay-go paradigm of disaster funding.