Hurricane Sandy Could Increase Congressional Workload

As though Congress didn’t have enough to sort out during the lame duck session this fall…

Meteorologists predicted that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will be an event of epic proportion. And if that’s the case, it’s possible Congress could be forced to tackle an additional spending bill this year to help those in need and bolster funding of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For starters, FEMA is in much better fiscal shape right now than it was when Hurricane Irene churned up the eastern seaboard in September, 2011. FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is believed to have more than an extra billion dollars on hand right now. To this point, 2012 has been a relatively mild disaster year compared to last year. And Irene nearly pushed FEMA to the brink.

Irene was a major storm and dumped a prodigious amount of rain on the east coast and in New England. It killed 56 people and cost $15.6 billion in the U.S. That made it the fifth costliest hurricane in American history. The storm ravaged bridges, tore down overpasses and washed out roads in Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and upstate New York. People and communities found themselves in major need as FEMA’s coffers already bled bone dry.

In 2011, the nation experienced extraordinary flooding in the Mississippi River valley and North Dakota. A spate of tornadoes spun through Alabama and Missouri. Wildfires charred Texas. An earthquake rattled Washington, DC. So once hurricane season arrived, FEMA struggled with just $175 million on hand. FEMA said the balance could soon reach zero just when people needed it the most. With the money drained, a FEMA spokeswoman said the agency would have to stop all ongoing operations. That meant no help not only for Irene – but also those in Joplin, MO still trying to reassemble their lives after the devastating twister which yanked the town apart in the spring.

Congress lurched into a heated debate as lawmakers tried to sidestep a government shutdown and fund FEMA. Irene was bad. There was talk in Congress about a supplemental appropriations spending bill. Here’s how such a package works. There are 12 annual appropriations or spending bills which fund the federal government. But then if there’s a series of major disasters, or the U.S. invades Iraq or Afghanistan, Congress often decides to craft an additional appropriations bill known as a supplemental, or “supp” in Washington-ese. They would pile the “supp” on top of everything else Congress was already planning to allocate money for.

Natural disasters know no political or ideological bounds. Republicans had just seized control of the House with a mandate to slash spending. Thus, the concept of a supplemental spending bill was anathema to many lawmakers aligned with the tea party.

During an appearance on FOX, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) initially suggested that if additional FEMA money was needed, conservatives would insist on finding requisite cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. And President Obama wrote to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) asking for a “supplemental appropriations request for FY 2011 of $500 million and a budget amendment of FY 2012 of $4.6 billion.”

In January, 2011, the president’s budget request for Fiscal Year ’12 asked for $1.8 billion in disaster funding. FEMA later told Congress it could need up to $4 billion more in funding, totaling $6.8 billion in  FY ‘12. But everyone was at loggerheads.

Finally there was a breakthrough. In early October, 2011, Congress passed a temporary spending measure to keep all of the government running and infused FEMA with $2.65 billion.

So Congress has to wrestle with a host of issues when lawmakers return in a few weeks. Most of them involve the “fiscal cliff,” such as expiring tax breaks and arbitrary spending cuts known as the sequester. There’s also a farm bill. It’s unknown now if the damage from Sandy will be so extreme that Congress will have to entertain a supplemental. But there are already expectations that lawmakers will have no choice because this event is unprecedented.

That’s partly because of the size and scope of the storm. Sandy is hitting the nation’s major population centers. It’s not a hurricane that’s just concentrated on the Gulf Coast or Florida. It turns west to blast locales as far inland as Michigan with rain and gusts of wind. Some forecast models predict it could bury the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia with as much as two feet of snow.

The bottom line is that lots of people have skin in the game. And as the saying goes, all politics is local.

This storm is set to scrape the districts and states represented by a team of House and Senate Appropriations Committee members who are charged with funding FEMA – and determining how the government spends its money.

Senate appropriators who represent constituents in the Sandy footprint include Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Jack Reed (D-RI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

In the House, the list includes Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Steven LaTourette (R-OH), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Jose Serrano (D-NY), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jim Moran (D-VA), John Olver (D-MA), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Chakah Fattah (D-PA) and Steve Rothman (D-NJ).

Expect them to go to bat for their regions if the predictions are true. And a single-event supplemental appropriations bill is not out of the question. Rarely has any natural disaster gotten such hyperbolic, advance-billing.

In July, 1980, Congress authorized spending $951 million after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. $951 million isn’t a lot by today’s federal spending standards. But it did the trick back then. The Mount St. Helens eruption killed 57 people and destroyed hundreds of miles of highways, dozens of bridges and wiped out hundreds of homes. It remains the most catastrophic volcanic event in American history.

Of course, the problem with these supplemental spending bills is that lawmakers have historically liked to lard them up with extras. That’s not the mood of the present-day Congress. But it will be interesting to watch if there is need and if some lawmakers balk because they don’t like the price tag in an age of deficit reduction.

But for lawmakers, there go their districts but for the grace of God. Lawmakers in the upper midwest know their constituents want aid when blizzards strike. Lawmakers in the mountains know their constituents want aid when forest fires crackle. Lawmakers in California know their constituents want aid when the earth shakes. So who would want to jam up the works just because the disaster didn’t directly impact them? Plus, some industrious fiscal hawks could use the supplemental to find cost offsets elsewhere. They may search for spending scalps which are dear to some but offensive to others (See Parenthood, Planned and Bird, Big).

Regardless, there will likely be a fight over the cost of any potential supplemental spending bill. On the Mount St. Helens measure, the House wanted to cough up only $784 million. But the Senate proposed $951 million. The Senate figure ultimately prevailed, mainly due to the deal making of the late-Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-WA). Not only did Magnuson represent the state which bore the brunt of the Mount St. Helens disaster, but he also chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time. Lawmakers who represent areas which Sandy will whip and flood are watching.

Over the next few days, we’ll hear a lot about localized wind damage, localized power outages and localized flooding.

And like those issues, politics is local, too.