While it’s unknown how much damage Hurricane Matthew will wreak across Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, it’s certain those states will ask Congress for billions in disaster relief.
President Barack Obama, after speaking with their governors, suggested that he’ll be seeking emergency funds for damage from Matthew and earlier storms when lawmakers convene after the Nov. 8 election, and Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio said Florida was certain to seek assistance.
“While the state has yet to commence an assessment of damage due to unsafe conditions remaining in many areas, we must be prepared for the long road of recovery ahead,” Rubio wrote in a letter backing up a request from Scott that Obama declare Matthew a “major disaster” for his state, a designation that would allow it to seek more emergency aid from Washington.
For decades, such requests sailed through Congress with dispatch and no partisan resistance. But they now face strong political head winds as fiscal conservatives demand spending cuts in other programs to cover added funding for weather, health and environmental emergencies.
The emerging trend started in October 2011, when House of Representatives fiscal conservatives tried to offset $6.9 billion in aid for damage from Tropical Storm Lee in Louisiana with cuts in other programs.
Then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, warned about future payback.
“If you vote to require an offset and another storm hits your state, then it is going to be the responsibility on your shoulders to tell your people, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you until I go to Washington and find an offset,’ ” Landrieu said.
242 The number of federal disaster declarations in 2011, the most in any year going back to 1953, when the program began
Even Louisiana’s six Republican congressmen voted to require the spending cuts, but the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, defeated the offsets.
The trend picked up steam in late 2012, when lawmakers debated providing $50 billion in emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy, an October storm that ravaged the Atlantic Seaboard while killing 233 people in the United States and Haiti and other Caribbean nations.
Led by Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, fiscal conservatives forced a House vote to require spending offsets equal to the Sandy aid. Although they lost by 258-162, a new marker had been set.
Laying the political groundwork for Matthew aid, Obama recalled Friday that the Sandy fallout eventually required much more financial assistance than originally thought.
“Many of you will remember Hurricane Sandy, where initially people thought, ‘This doesn’t look as bad as we thought,’ and then suddenly you get massive storm surge and a lot of people were severely affected,” he said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Florida argued most of this year that Zika was a public health emergency, but Obama’s $1.9 billion spending request to combat the mosquito-borne virus was hung up for seven months, and eventually reduced to $1.1 billion, partly over demands that other appropriations be cut to pay for it.
The compromise bill approved last month, part of much broader budget legislation called a “continuing resolution,” purportedly contained $400 million in cuts to partially offset the Zika funds. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, said the bill had only $75 million in true reductions. The rest, it said, were paper cuts from appropriations that hadn’t been spent and would not be used.
Real or not, Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York expressed concern that requiring offsets for Zika set a worrisome precedent for responding to urgent needs to come.
“I object to the inclusion of $400 million recissions in this, which could lead some to believe incorrectly that emergency spending should be offset or will be in the future,” she said.
The costliest storm in American history was Hurricane Katrina, which caused $108 billion in damage when it struck New Orleans in August 2005
The push for spending offsets has placed new pressure on lawmakers trying to help their states and has pit one region against another.
In a bitter Senate floor speech Sept. 22, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan complained that Congress was giving $500 million to Louisiana for flood relief without requiring cuts to other programs while spending offsets were demanded as a condition for $170 million for the city of Flint to treat contaminated drinking water and replace lead pipes.
“To see the continuing resolution come to the floor with help for Louisiana and not for the families of Flint is outrageous,” Stabenow said.
Neil Siefring, top lobbyist for the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, criticized providing Louisiana with $500 million without corresponding cuts as “an example of poor statesmanship.”
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, also objected to giving Louisiana so much money without requiring offsets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, it said, still has $3.4 billion in previously appropriated funds to spend on disasters in 2016.
Obama acknowledged Thursday that FEMA “is in a good position right now,” but he warned that Matthew and future storms could tap out its money by the Nov. 30 end of the Atlantic hurricane season.
“We always want to be cautious about making assessments with respect to damage,” the president said. “We’re still on the front end of this hurricane. We’re not on the back end. So we don’t know how bad the damage could end up. We don’t know how severe the storm surge could end up being.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the state represented by Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney. He is from South Carolina.