Issues & Insights
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

$19.1 Billion ‘Emergency’ Relief Bill Is a Disaster of Waste

I&I Editorial

‘We need action.”

“This delay is unconscionable.”

“It’s a shame, it’s cruel, it’s inhumane.”

“This is yet another example of politicians putting their own self-interest ahead of the national interest.”

“Unfortunately, more clowns showed up today to once again delay disaster relief for the states and farmers devastated by the storms of 2018.”

“The heartlessness of House Republicans knows no bounds.”

“It’s pathetic that some members have chosen this moment to grandstand & get into the national headlines.”

All of those quotes came from politicians — on both sides of the aisle — after a couple of recalcitrant Republicans objected to the House using a voice vote on a $19.1 billion spending bill, instead of requiring House members to record their votes. 

But why the sudden rush? The disasters this bill is trying to address all happened last year. 

The bill has been in the works for more than a month. The House is back in session next Tuesday, when it can vote on the spending measure, which means a delay of just seven days.

But more to the point, most of the “emergency” funds lawmakers are so desperate to get signed into law right now won’t be spent for years, if they get spent at all.

The Congressional Budget Office, the official arbiter of the cost of legislation, says that the disaster aid bill authorizes $19.2 in disaster relief. 

But only $5.3 billion of that will be spent this year. Next year, $4.9 billion will go out the door. 

That means 47% of the spending authorized by this “emergency” bill won’t be spent until 2021 or later — three years after the disasters occurred. How does any of that constitute “emergency” spending?

Nor is it clear that the funds are as desperately needed as lawmakers claim. 

Citizens Against Government Waste analysis of a March 29 version of the Senate disaster bill — which then carried a price tag of $13.5 billion —noted that federal programs already cover most of the damages caused by last year’s hurricanes. 

“Standing disaster programs reauthorized by last year’s Farm Bill already cover the crop and livestock losses,” it noted. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Community Development Block Grants already cover the infrastructure damage. The Army Corps of Engineers already cover the damages to water resources and flood controls.”

Meanwhile, Utah Sen. Mike Lee (who was one of only eight Republicans to vote against the disaster bill) notes that the bill the Senate approved by an 85-8 margin contains plenty of non-emergency waste. “For example, the bill passed this week included $2.4 billion for the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program and another $55 million for the proven-failure Head Start program,” he said.

Lee notes that in the past five years alone, lawmakers spent more than $173 billion on “emergency” spending.

What’s more, there’s a good chance that at least some of these “emergency” funds will never get spent.

After the 2017 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma and Maria), Congress approved $35 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery. By early 2019, most of the money still hadn’t been spent, according to a GAO report out in March.

CAGW’s Allen Johnson says that “Congress is using the pretext of a disaster as an excuse to spend more money.”

I other words, this bill isn’t about helping people in desperate need as much as it is about satiating lawmakers’ addiction to spending.

Maybe that’s why the House is in such a rush to get this disaster to the president’s desk as quickly as possible.

— Written by John Merline

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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.


  • Disaster of waste? Our food belt is under water. Precious top soil is being washed away. Our nation is at risk of being dependent on others, and mass starvation. Please, look beyond the end of your political noses!

    • Marilyn, looking at the obesity epidemic in our country, the threat of mass starvation is a somewhat hyperbolic statement. I assume it was meant as sarcasm.

    • Ummm actually throughout history, the flooding of farm/crop land has been looked at as a major positive. Some places coudn’t survive without their regular flooding.
      Usually floods deposit very healthy layers of rich silt which acts to freshen the soil.
      Floods, except in the few places where they actually cut a channel, usually don’t disturb the topsoil at all.

  • Every bill which is rushed, has abuse hidden inside. An emergency bill should have strict controls within the language. Authorization should vanish if not spent by a certain date. Fraud and abuse language must be included. Accountability of expenditures must be included. Audits of required files must be required. Lines of spending authorities must be clear.
    Create and state a list of acceptable NGOs who are authorized to receive funds. They are quicker and cheaper than bureaucrats.

    Otherwise some will hurt and others made fat. Slaughter the fat hogs.

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