House Goes Senate One Better with Pork Laden Sandy Bill
Business + Economy

House Goes Senate One Better with Pork Laden Sandy Bill

Reuters/iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

House Republicans last week blasted Senate Democrats for filling the fiscal cliff deal with pet projects and pork barrel spending. That legislation not only extended Bush-era tax cuts and put off tough spending decisions,  as it was meant to do, but gave tax breaks to Hollywood and NASCAR.

Next week, in a move that “gives as good as you get” the House will vote on its version of  $50.6  billion in emergency assistance to victims of Hurricane Sandy—a measure also loaded with earmarks far removed from the storm victims.   

That huge spending package includes billions of dollars of unrelated storm projects, according to a new analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the spending watchdog.  Among the extraneous spending:

  • $2 billion for the Federal Highway Administration to spend on road improvements across the country unrelated to the hurricane damage and flooding.
  • $16 billion of Community Development Funds that would be available to any community or state that was declared a federal disaster area in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Twenty-four states sustained damage from Sandy, but this provision extends community development funds to an additional 23 states and Puerto Rico.  Only Arizona, Michigan and South Carolina would be left out.
  • $500 million for Army Corps of Engineers reclamation projects in coastal areas that were unscathed by Hurricane Sandy. The federal government would pick up the full cost of beach reclamation and sand pumping. In the past, localities were required to pick up about a third of the cost.  
  • $25 million to improve weather and hurricane intensity forecasting – an important priority but one that could be handled through the normal budget process.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the spending package is emblematic of a fundamental problem Capitol Hill: While practically nobody objects to rushing aid to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost homes and businesses because of natural disasters, Congress can’t resist larding emergency spending measures that add to the deficit with pet projects. This is troubling at a time when Congress and the White House are fighting over the debt ceiling and ways to control spending.

“Out of one side of their mouth, lawmakers are saying that we need to deal with the across-the-board cuts that are sequestration and to reduce spending,” Ellis said on Thursday. “Out of the other side of their mouth, they are calling a whole litany of regular spending items ‘emergency’ to evade budget caps. We cannot afford business as usual. Business as usual got us into this $16.4 trillion debt hole.”

Ellis and other critics are quick to blast Congress for loading up major legislation with wasteful or unrelated spending. But when so few measures can pass a heavily gridlocked Congress, lawmakers often have little choice but to seize the moment and add their pet projects to the moving train.

And in this case, the legislative train includes a train. AMTRAK will receive $118 million for non-Sandy related upgrades along the Northeast Corridor, according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis. Also, there’s $5.6 million in the package to cover the Army’s cost of repairing some facilities that were damaged by the hurricane. Those funds are equivalent to one one-hundredth of a percent of the Army’s operations and maintenance fund. 
“Somehow I think they could find the money in house to actually do these repairs by delaying other activities rather than doing it on an emergency basis,” Ellis said. “

While the emergency spending package is likely to draw sharp criticism from conservatives and deficit hawks alike, it appears destined for  swift passage in the House next week, as angry and impatient Northeastern officials including Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demand action.

The Senate passed a $60 billion version of the emergency relief legislation Dec. 28, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, postponed action on it after many House Republicans complained that the bill was laced with pork. New Jersey and New York officials immediately charged that they had been betrayed by Boehner, who had promised them action by New Year’s Day.  "New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display," Christie seethed, adding, this is "why the American people hate Congress.”

That uproar prompted Congress to vote on Jan. 4 to approve a $9.7 billion measure to extend the federal flood insurance program, coupled with a House pledge to vote on the larger relief package by Jan. 15.

About $17 billion of the total is contained in legislation drafted by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., including:  $5.4 billion to fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund, $5.4 billion to help the transit authorities in New York and New Jersey, $3.9 billion for Department of Housing and Urban Development rebuilding efforts, and $1.45 billion for t Army Corps of Engineer projects.

The lion’s share of spending--$33.7 billion--will come in the form of an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., and will go largely to help fund the repair of roads and bridges that were damaged or destroyed by Sandy. Of the entire $50.7 billion package, just $3.4 billion will have to be offset by cuts to discretionary programs elsewhere. 

Frelinghuysen told the Hill that unlike the Senate bill, his amendment only provides funding for projects relating to Hurricane Sandy.  Republicans in both the House and the Senate bristled at the Senate bill for its inclusion of projects that had nothing to do with Sandy cleanup, such as relief for droughts and fires across the country.

"I am optimistic about the prospect of passage of my amendment to provide $33 billion in additional funding when the House takes up the emergency supplemental," Frelinghuysen said last week. "The Appropriations Committee has 'scrubbed' the proposal. The funding is 'Sandy-related,' it contains no earmarks, no state-specific provisions unrelated to the storm."

But Ellis and his group strongly disagree, saying, there is still plenty in Frelinghuysen’s amendment that has nothing to do with Sandy victims. “We’re in a different budget situation than we were a few years ago and need to respond to it appropriately,” he said. “Secondly,  this is part of the fundamental failures of our [system]  that we wait until a disaster happens and then we willy-nilly throw a lot of money at the problem rather than actually systemizing it, putting it into the budget process and spending this money in a more reasoned fashion, year after year after year. 

Frelinghuysen’s office did not reply to repeated calls for comment from The Fiscal Times.

Political observers expect the emergency package will get a big bipartisan vote next week, although many conservative House Republicans – feeling the heat from anti-spending groups like Club for Growth – are likely to vote against it.

“This has been designated an emergency and has the political pressure behind it to get it through the Congress,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Republican congressional spokesman.   But Barney Keller, communications director for  Club for Growth, told The Fiscal Times that “our position has been pretty clear, which is that we want the disaster relief to be offset [with other spending cuts], we think it should be parceled out in smaller pieces, there  needs to  oversight and it shouldn’t have any pork in it.”

Asked whether his group wasn’t trying to stand in the way of passage of critically needed relief, Keller said, “We want to see the victims receive the aid that they need. We just don’t think that it should be done in an irresponsible manner. If anything, if you’re a senior citizen who has been without power or heat for a month after Sandy and Congress is trying to stuff down billions in future mitigation projects that aren’t emergency spending into your relief bill,  I would be outraged by that. I think that’s why you’re seeing some resistance and some debate over this legislation.”

Josh Boak of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.