The government won’t shut down this week over a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over whether emergency supplemental funds to support disaster relief should be offset with budget cuts.
And when the new fiscal year starts October 1, disaster relief funds will not need to be offset pursuant to an agreement the parties struck as part of the August debt ceiling deal. That’s why the $2.65 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund the Senate just passed didn’t have to be offset, and the House is expected to pass the same bill without putting up another fight.
But what happens if things get really bad: if assessments of damage from Hurricane Irene and the fires in Texas turn out to be much worse than expected, or if another unforeseen disaster strikes a major city. Does the debt ceiling deal provide an unlimited guarantee that House Republicans won’t try once again to pair disaster funding with partisan budget cuts?
The answer is no.
Here’s White House budget director Jack Lew in a September blog post.
“For purposes of fiscal year 2012, Congress allowed for the discretionary cap total to be raised by no more than the average funding provided for disaster relief over the previous 10 years, excluding the highest and lowest years,” he wrote. “The average funding provided for disaster relief over the previous 10 years (excluding the highest and lowest years) is $11.3 billion for FY 2012.”
$11.3 billion is a lot of money, and enough in a typical year to pay for all of FEMA’s needs. But natural disasters are unpredictable almost by definition. And that means we could see another fight, similar to the one that just ended, play out if sometime in the next 12 months if FEMA comes to Congress and says they need a big infusion.
At a House Rules Committee hearing recently, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Rules ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-NY) argued past each other over this issue. At one point (two minutes in to the below video) Rogers seemed to claim that there’d be no more requests for offsets.
“If the money that you have even from lifting the debt ceiling — if somehow we need more for disaster aid, will that need to be offset?” Slaughter asked.
“No,” an annoyed Rogers answered.
But he seems to have misunderstood her question. After $11.3 billion, the Congress will either have to tweak the caps in the debt limit deal, or have another fight over offsetting. Hopefully we don’t get to that point.
Watch the whole exchange between Slaughter and Rogers below.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.