Politics

New $44 Billion Disaster Aid Request Paltry, Lawmakers Say

Extensive offsets could also prove controversial

Rep. John Culberson of Texas said the White House’s most recent aid request “would sabotage what has been an incredible response by President Trump to Hurricane Harvey up to this point.” (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In its third emergency aid request since August, the White House on Friday asked Congress to approve $44 billion for ongoing hurricane recovery efforts, a figure seen as insufficient on both sides of the aisle. 

At the same time, the White House asked lawmakers to consider a lengthy list of offsets, noting in a letter that the administration “believes it is prudent to offset new spending.”

While the offsets are likely to prove controversial, prominent Democrats and Republicans alike are already criticizing the size of the aid request. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn called it “wholly inadequate” and senior House appropriator John Culberson said it “would sabotage what has been an incredible response by President Trump to Hurricane Harvey up to this point.”

Cornyn and Culberson are both Texas Republicans. Their state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, last month outlined $61 billion worth of help needed for the Lone Star state.

Advocates for Puerto Rico in Congress were also not pleased with the new White House request. “Moving forward without significant changes will only hinder the Puerto Rican government’s capacity to address the situation on the ground and will contribute to further suffering on the island,” said Democratic Reps. Jose E. Serrano and Nydia M. Velazquez of New York and Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, co-chairs of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Puerto Rico.

Other lawmakers will likely soon begin lobbying the Appropriations committees for an increase in funding beyond what the administration laid out on Friday. How much will need to be determined somewhat quickly. 

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund has about $15.5 billion remaining to continue assisting a broad range of disasters, and Congress has just three legislative weeks left before it leaves town for its winter break. During that time, they’ll have to sort out how to fund the government past Dec. 8 and pass a Republican tax overhaul bill.

Culberson didn’t mince words about the new Trump administration aid request.

“It falls severely short of the bare minimum needed to continue repairing the damage of Hurricane Harvey in Texas in every aspect. OMB’s response to the largest housing disaster, in terms of volume and dollar amount, would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious,” he said in a statement. “Luckily, OMB does not fund the government. Congress writes the checks and we will fix this. Texans, Floridians, and Puerto Ricans deserve better.” 

Approaching $100 billion

Writing the spending bill above the request would fit with what appropriators did to the last two disaster aid requests — bolstering the first from $7.87 billion to $15.25 billion and the second from $29 billion to $36.5 billion. If approved as is, which seems unlikely, the third disaster aid package would bring the total amount approved for disaster recovery to $95.75 billion. Congress has already approved $51.75 in two installments enacted in September and October.

Considering the push for additional funds, the price tag will likely surpass the $100 billion mark. It also brings aid for this disaster much closer to the $120 billion approved following Hurricane Katrina and far above the $60 billion approved in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Of course, the aid this year follows three large, destructive hurricanes and a devastating wildfire season in Western states — making it difficult to compare this sequence of disaster aid to previous responses to natural disasters.

Details of the request

The new White House request is broken down as follows:

  • $25.2 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief account and the Small Business Administration;
  • $12 billion for flood risk mitigation projects administered by the Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program;
  • $4.6 billion for repair or replacement of damaged federal property;
  • $1.2 billion for an education recovery fund;
  • $1 billion for emergency agricultural assistance.

The proposed offsets total $59 billion, most of which would come from extending the sequester of mandatory programs resulting from the 2011 Budget Control Act for an additional two years, through fiscal 2027. 

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stipulated in his Friday letter that the proposed “pay-fors” don’t necessarily need to offset the hurricane aid effort, and that they could be considered in a different context. For example, the White House and Hill leaders are seeking to strike a two-year deal on discretionary spending caps, which may be partially offset.

The proposed offsets cover a wide range of programs, including $3.9 billion from student financial assistance; $1.4 billion from the Agriculture Department’s farm security and rural investment program; $800 million from the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children; and $99 million for the State Department’s democracy fund.

What’s not included

Additional federal funds are not included for the effort to help Californians recover from wildfires which blazed across the state. However, the request cites the need for a tax relief package similar to a measure Congress enacted in September for hurricane victims. 

Similarly, no direct Medicaid assistance for Puerto Rico is included in the request, as the administration notes Congress is working on separate legislation to deal with that issue.

The top Senate Democratic appropriator, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said he is concerned about strings attached to the proposed $12 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding. Leahy said the money “will never flow to Puerto Rico because it favors states that can provide matching funds.” 

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson criticized the proposal for lacking sufficient funding “to provide housing for evacuees and barely any money for Florida’s citrus growers.“ 

The money is designated as an emergency, meaning it will not be subject to fiscal 2018 discretionary spending caps. 

To secure enough votes to pass the House, GOP leaders will probably have to lean on Democrats to support the bill. On the first disaster aid package in September, which also included a stopgap continuing resolution and debt limit extension, 90 House Republicans voted against it. On the October emergency aid bill, 69 voted “no.”

Given the short amount of time remaining on the legislative calendar, the aid package is likely to be combined with some other must-pass measure like a CR or omnibus appropriations bill.

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