FEMA, Sandy, and rainy day funds

What do FEMA, Sandy and rainy day funds have in common? Their nexus creates yet another political battleground in which Cassandras on both sides of the aisle crank up their propaganda machines and lob straw men and red herrings at each other in an attempt to keep their core supporters motivated and cajole undecided voters.

A good friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article entitled Mitt Romney’s Terrifying Plans for FEMA and Disaster Relief.

It’s a cautionary tale that uses Hurricane Sandy to question  statements about FEMA previously made by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and VP candidate Paul Ryan regarding how the federal government should manage and pay for disaster relief.

The article quotes Mother Jones, to make it’s point that Ryan’s budget, if enacted into law, would affect FEMA’s ability to respond to natural disasters because of the requirement that the budget be balanced and binding

That’s true as far as it goes. A well enforced balanced budget requires choices in the face of unexpected expenses. This does not necessarily mean an eviscerated FEMA or a decimated military budget.

As part of a balanced budget act, Congress could establish a set of agreed upon budget priorities and create a triage plan. That way, if an unexpected expense arises, they’ve already agreed in advance which things will be cut.

Ryan makes copious use of the “household budget” trope in his 2004 speech “Innovative Budgeting Procedures for Congress,” “Look at how we do it with our family budgets. We do not have the ability to just assume more income into our families when we set a budget for our family budget for the year. However, Congress does that.” Congressional Record Volume 150, Number 37 (Tuesday, March 23, 2004)] [House] [Pages H1357-H1363]

Failure to make that list guarantees shortfalls will result in political factions seizing upon the moment to kill the other guys programs while preserving theirs. Who gets screwed? You and me.

Obviously we have no way of knowing from year to year whether a natural disaster will befall one or more regions of the country. So if we fail to set aside enough money, borrowing won’t be an option. Instead the money must come from some other place in the budget, rather like what most households must do.

I completely agree that the Federal Government should not spend more money than it takes in. The problem I see is in the construct of the rules. Without specifying the priorities before hand, this sets up a protracted battle over which programs will be cut.

Ryan has a point. Money from disaster relief comes from somewhere. Either the Federal government has it on hand or it borrows the money. He thinks we shouldn’t borrow the money

Ryan has a point to the extent that money from disaster relief has to come from somewhere. I do not have federal flood insurance. If my home were to get flooded from Sandy, and incurred damage, I’d have to find the money someplace, either from my savings or by borrowing. Creating a system where balancing the budget in an emergency gives Congress the power to hold up the citizenry by cutting money from their pet peeve programs is the real problem. Inevitably, somebody gets screwed.

I have a better idea. Well actually I didn’t make it up. How about we create a rainy day fund? Set aside money for disasters every year in inviolable trusts so when Sandy or Irene or Gloria or Katrina come to town, we’ll have enough money to pay the bill.


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