The Bipartisan Push to Budget Long-Term for Natural Disasters

The Senate is coming around to an inevitable conclusion: Emergencies are increasingly common, and Congress should budget better for them.

As multibillion-dollar disaster-relief legislation languishes in the upper chamber over aid to Puerto Rico, Senate budgeters and appropriators looking to tackle the deficit and the worst effects of climate change are embracing the idea of regular budgeting for natural disasters rather than resorting to supplemental appropriations.

Senate Budget Chairman Michael Enzi on Thursdaycalled for incorporating disaster relief into base budgeting, in hopes of making supplemental allocations obsolete. Enzi, a fiscal conservative, noted that Congress has spent $250 billion in emergency aid outside of the discretionary caps set in 2011 under the Budget Control Act, which helped increase the debt to its current $22 trillion.

“Better budgeting for natural disasters won’t fix all of our financial problems, but it’s a good place to start,” he said on the floor.

Enzi, whose committee passed a budget resolutionlast week that included two years of cap adjustments for wildfire suppression and disaster relief, also said Congress could consider investing in preventative measures to mitigate natural disasters, offsetting disaster spending with decreases elsewhere or creating “a dedicated fund for emergencies.”

And he applauded legislation, dubbed the Budgeting for Disasters Act, that Sen. Mitt Romney offered last month as an amendment on the disaster package still under consideration in the Senate. That bill would trigger the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration if lawmakers exceed budget caps with disaster funding.

The legislation, which won’t get a vote during the current debate, aims to force lawmakers to include money for anticipated disasters in budget and appropriations bills.

“I want to make sure that … we don’t keep on adding to the debt by virtue of calling it something extraordinary when frankly disasters are not so extraordinary,” Romney said last month in a video posted on Twitter.

The push to secure disaster relief is more urgent as natural disasters become more frequent. Fourteen natural disasters in 2018 inflicted more than $1 billion in damages across the U.S., ranging from hailstorms and tornadoes in the Great Plains to Western wildfires, southeastern tornadoes, and blizzards along the Eastern Seaboard, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s a stark contrast from recent years. Over the period between 1980 and 2018, the U.S. averaged roughly six events that racked up that level of damage, taking into account inflation, according to NOAA. The past five years, including 2018, averaged 12.6 events.

“They’re becoming so common that we should be budgeting for them,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democratic appropriator. “We could actually make the determination what all these disasters are costing us every year, so you’d know that doing nothing on the climate is not fiscally smart.”

The primary obstacle to similar pushes in the past, Tester said, has been “money, period,” as Congress constantly works to dole out funds for other priorities within discretionary caps. Natural disasters have cost taxpayers more than $1.6 trillion over the past four decades.

But not all key players are on board. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby dismissed Romney’s proposal as “noise” that might “make a statement” but would otherwise prove difficult to pass.

“It might be an idea to discuss, but how do you implement it?” Shelby said. “The barrier is the next Congress can ignore it.”

Meanwhile, the drive to overhaul the status quo for reactive disaster funding is drawing support from policy wonks off Capitol Hill across the political spectrum.

Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst for fiscal affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has been pushing for lawmakers to front-load disaster spending. “In general, we should stop having cap adjustments for disaster funding, and that’s basically what the Romney proposal is doing,” he said.

But Bogie said more sweeping changes are needed, including a decrease in the federal share of disaster responses from 75 percent to 25 percent for all but the largest Federal Emergency Management Agency declarations.

“This creates a vicious cycle as states respond to increased federalization of disasters by preparing less than they should,” he wrote in a recent report. “As a result, states are less prepared for disasters, they request more federal help, and the downward cycle is perpetuated.”

Although advocates for aggressive action on climate change agree that funding needs to be in place before disasters occur, the viewpoints diverge from there. Ellen Vaughan, a policy director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, prefers far more upfront funding on climate mitigation and resiliency, from seawalls to more-sustainable construction materials, in order to stave off widespread damage from natural disasters.

“The science tells us that climate change is making the weather more unpredictable and the increased temperature [leads] to the atmosphere holding more moisture, so you see more storms, more frequency, and more intensity,” Vaughan said. “We’re going to have a hazard, but it doesn’t have to turn into a disaster if we’ve had some thoughtful planning.”

Romney’s amendment, along with broader proposals to constrain spending, won’t address the changing weather conditions, she said. “It’s really not asking the right question. I really think that it needs more about how to use the money that we have more efficiently, and that’s something that I would think both sides of the aisle would support.”

A disaster package President Trump signed in October last year, which passed alongside reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, established a new “pre-disaster mitigation” program, as well as other reforms to disaster spending. But a wholesale overhaul may be too heavy a lift for the foreseeable future.

“Lawmakers want to be seen as being reactive and responding to that disaster and helping people back home,” Bogie said. “There are so many lawmakers where this affects their states and their districts that I doubt there’s going to be a real push to limit this or to really reform anything.” 

By:  Zach C. Cohen and Brian Dabbs
Source: National Journal