Disaster Aid Held Hostage

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Relief funds for rebuilding communities that have been hammered by natural disasters shouldn't be held hostage to demands to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget.

Aug. 31, 2011

Back in July, tea party Republicans in the House appeared willing to hold the U.S. economy hostage to get their way on spending cuts in the federal budget. Now it seems some are willing to hold hostage disaster aid for communities hammered by tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes. Not immediate relief, necessarily, but longer term efforts to rebuild communities.

There is no question that Washington needs to provide better stewardship of taxpayers' money, and that not enough has been done to address the nation's long-term deficits.

But there also is no question that citizens expect the federal government to respond to disaster-related emergencies such as Hurricane Irene, the earthquake that shook parts of the East Coast and the tornadoes that devastated Joplin, Miss., and parts of the South in spring. Washington needs to adequately fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency so that it can provide the aid that citizens expect to rebuild their communities.

Right now, the agency is underfunded, with less than $800 million on hand to dish out for disasters. The fault for that lies with both Congress and the White House. Money is still needed to rebuild communities from the tornadoes, let alone the billions that will be needed to cover damage caused by the earthquake and Irene. And the hurricane season is far from over.

But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the House would require offsetting spending cuts to make up for those costs. That's an unrealistic expectation, as Sen. Bernard Sanders pointed out.

"To say that the only way you can come up with funding to rebuild devastated communities is to cut back on other desperately needed programs is totally absurd," Sanders told The New York Times. "Historically in this country we have understood that when communities and states experience disasters, we as a nation come together to address those. That is what being a nation is about."

He's right. When communities have been hit by natural disasters, the nation has responded. Citizens understand that some disasters are simply too big for one community - or one state - to handle. In addition, recovering communities can't do much to help the nation's economy grow until they're back on their feet.

That doesn't mean funds should be spent without accountability or without proper scrutiny. But it does mean the first concern is rebuilding. Let's do that job, and debate government cuts separately.