Sandy might have been a storm of historic proportions, but Congress likely won't have to face the task this year of providing a fresh infusion of cash to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the hurricane relief effort. But disaster funding is an issue that will likely come up in the 113th Congress.
FEMA's disaster fund got $7.1 billion in the latest spending bill. But thanks to the Budget Control Act, the agency can spend up to $11.3 billion on disaster response and recovery in 2012. Those sums, plus some carryover from a light disaster year in 2012, will fund the federal response to Sandy at least through the end of the year. That would spare Congress from having to deal with yet another thorny fight during the jam-packed lame-duck session.
Congressional staffers will monitor FEMA’s accounts closely to figure out when the agency might need a supplemental appropriation. The first clues will come from the official cost estimate for the storm, which aides say can take 30 to 60 days. Experts have estimated storm cleanup could cost anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion, meaning that FEMA could be left without additional funding in 2013.
If that is the case, Congress may once again consider supplemental funding for FEMA. Approving additional federal money for disaster recovery used to be relatively routine for Congress, but in the past two years FEMA funds have gotten caught up in larger fights over federal spending and the deficit. Conservatives, particularly tea party members in the House, resisted giving a “blank check” to FEMA.
In 2011, after a record year of damage from hurricanes and tornadoes, FEMA was forced to shift money around and suspend projects to make it through the last five days of the fiscal year. In addition, the agency’s disaster relief fund fell to a nearly zero balance for the first time. The total amount of funding for FEMA became a political football, as Administrator Craig Fugate told members the $2.6 billion appropriated for aid in 2012 would not last through the year.
Democrats and Republicans previously reached compromise in the Budget Control Act in 2011, establishing a funding mechanism that determines the agency’s disaster funding by taking a 10-year average of FEMA spending, minus the most expensive and least expensive years. That is where the $11.3 billion figure for 2012 comes from.
“One of the benefits of a 10-year mechanism is that it is a commitment that would outlive the administration,” James Fraser, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who has done research on FEMA, said in an interview. “That’s been really problematic in the past, when a different administration comes in,” funds can be quickly changed. "It gives the ability to forecast economically, with a certain amount of uncertainty," Fraser said.
But conservatives still see room for improvement.
“It’s somewhat of a constraint, but not really. We’ve just ended the most prolific, active 10 years in FEMA history. I wouldn’t use [the 10-year average] as a measure, but it’s better than a blank check,” said Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former senior official at Homeland Security.
“The key is that we conserve resources for events like Sandy,” Mayer said. “If you go back and look at [major disaster declarations made this year], very few are related to catastrophic events. They are flooding, fires, snowstorms--nothing we would consider a 10.0 earthquake or if a Category 3 hurricane hit the U.S.,” Mayer said.
Those are fights members can look forward to in the 113th Congress.