Hurricane Sandy relief turning into Porkfest 2012

Mary Katharine Ham wrote last week about the porkfest in the Senate bill authorizing emergency relief spending for Hurricane Sandy, but the Senate hasn’t gotten the message yet.  David Francis reports on more aspects of the larded-up bill for The Fiscal Times, while noting that this has become business as usual on Capitol Hill — especially while the normal budgeting process has been derailed:

The Sandy emergency spending package also contains provisions that had previously been rejected or had not yet been considered by Congress. This includes a measure that alters how the federal government manages areas prone to flooding, a bill that was rejected by the House earlier this year. Also included is the Disaster Recovery Act of 2012, a bill that had yet to be considered by a Senate committee.

But Ellis said the pork contained in the Sandy emergency bill were modest compared to past bills. The 2007 Iraq supplemental spending package contained $21 billion in unrelated domestic spending, including $283 for the Milk Income Loss Contract Program and $400 million for rural schools. In 2000, an $11.2 billion spending plan for disaster relief in Kosovo and Columbia included $45 million to pay for a private jet for the commandant of the Coast Guard.

According to Ellis, these pet projects are part of the horse-trading involved in the political process: in order to gain broad support, priorities eliminated during the regular budget process are included in emergency spending bills. Craig Jennings, manager of federal spending and contracting policy at OMB Watch, said this is a symptom of a broken appropriations process.

“This is how Congress tries to get in their priorities. Ideally you want this all done through regular order and the normal appropriations process,” Jennings said. “There is no regular order anymore. We’ve been jumping from a debt ceiling crisis to government shutdown crisis to whatever crisis comes next. However it’s supposed to work isn’t working.” Jennings said partisan gridlock makes returning to a normal appropriations process impossible.

But is the pork in this bill really all that modest?  In my column at TFT, I note that a generous analysis of the bill by Fox News puts the actual aid for Sandy victims and infrastructural damage at $47 billion out of over $60 billion, meaning almost a quarter of the spending isn’t emergency funding at all.  So what is it?

Various estimates abound for the amount of money being allocated to fund “mitigation” projects intended to prepare the US for future storms.  The numbers range from $10 billion to $28 billion – anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent of the entire bill.

This might be money well spent in a normal annual budget, depending on what these “mitigation” projects actually propose to do. However, this funding request is for emergency assistance for victims who have waited weeks for help.  If Congress wants to fund these “mitigation” projects, the money should be allocated in the normal budgeting process for Homeland Security.

Some of that money, reports the Heritage Foundation, comes in at $17 billion in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. Heritage rightly describes this as a “slush fund” for states, spent free from federal accountability. In the past, Heritage reports, “the CDBG program also has funded pork projects such as the Mark Twain House and Museum, the Salvador Dali Museum, and the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation.”

Again, one can debate the wisdom and administration of the CDBG program, but it’s not a vehicle for disaster relief, and yet it’s nearly 30 percent of the entire bill – and one has to question how much will go to actual Sandy relief.

More of the “mitigation” funds can be found in a $12 billion allocation to the Department of Transportation (which includes the supplemental Amtrak subsidies), ostensibly to repair public-transit systems.  However, more than $5 billion can be reallocated to other DoT priorities, one of which could be to combat “the rise in sea levels,” according to the Heritage analysis.

Those Amtrak subsidies, Heritage further notes, come to $336 million — which is a quarter of their usual annual subsidy, and more than ten times what the White House requested in emergency aid to Amtrak.  Did the storm damage a quarter of Amtrak infrastructure?  Or is this just favored-son pork that piggybacks on the misery of Sandy’s victims?

Normal budgets shouldn’t have a 20%+ pork factor in order to pass, and that’s even more true of emergency relief spending.