The wrong time to play politics with FEMA

Whether it's a hurricane, a flood, a tornado or an earthquake, Americans count on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be among the first responders. As the recent example of Hurricane Irene shows, only government can marshal the vast resources needed to quickly bring relief to victims of major disasters, then oversee cleanup and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath.

That's why a looming partisan fight in Congress over whether to replenish FEMA's disaster relief account must not be allowed to cripple the agency's ability to carry out its life-saving mission.


This year's string of weather-related calamities, from Hurricane Irene to flooding in the Midwest to the tornadoes that ripped through Joplin, Mo., have left the agency with less than $800 million in its coffers. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says that unless lawmakers approve additional funds for disaster relief soon, the agency could be forced to stop funding recovery efforts that are currently underway in order to be prepared for future emergencies.

Traditionally, Congress has approved a supplemental budget for FEMA every year as a matter of course in order to keep the agency solvent. That's because, by their nature, major disasters are unpredictable and their full costs cannot be known in advance.


But this year, under pressure from its tea party faction, leaders of the GOP-controlled House are demanding that any additional funding for FEMA disaster aid be matched by spending cuts in other government programs. In effect, House leaders are threatening to hold FEMA's ability to respond to emergencies hostage to the ongoing debate over the federal deficit and debt reduction.

As a general principle, they are, of course, absolutely right that new spending should be balanced by cuts elsewhere (or even tax increases) to avoid worsening the debt. Indeed, we'd be much better off today if such an attitude had been in effect when President Bush enacted massive tax cuts, or started two lengthy wars, or signed into law his unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit. All of those added massively to the national debt and put us in a weaker position to respond to the financial crisis and recession that started in 2007.

By contrast, adherence to the "pay as you go" principle under the Clinton administration produced balanced budgets and even a small surplus by the end of the 1990s. Had Mr. Bush and the Congress continued on that path, we might have been in a position of paying down the debt over the last decade rather than increasing it.

Pay as you go rules will have to be a part of the nation's long-term plan to reduce its debt, but now is not the right time to slam the brakes on federal spending. The national employment figures released Friday showed no job growth in the month of August, the latest in a series of warning signs that we risk a double-dip recession. In the long run, cutbacks are necessary. But in the short run, they could be disastrous.

And if we are to have a showdown over spending, FEMA's budget is not the right venue for it. An impasse over the agency's funding could be dangerous given the violent weather we've already experienced this year, not to mention the fact that we're just now entering the middle of the hurricane season. If another storm like Irene hits — or if some completely unexpected natural or man-made disaster strikes — thousands of lives could be put at risk if FEMA were unable to respond effectively.

The extra $1 billion FEMA is seeking sounds like a lot of money, but in reality it is a minuscule fraction of the federal budget and an even tinier slice of the $14 trillion national debt. Hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, on the other hand, have a way of striking regardless of political ideology or partisan affiliation.

In general, "pay as you go" makes sound political as well as economic sense. But in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, scrimping on disaster relief funds is like not paying your car insurance and simply hoping you won't have an accident. Better to pay the premium than find yourself woefully unprepared when the worst eventually happens.