Surprise: Emergency Sandy legislation full of millions in non-Sandy spending

The argument from those stuffing this thing like a Christmas goose is that we should pay no attention to the fact that they’re up to their elbows because the suffering of those in the wake of Superstorm Sandy is far too great to expend time or energy on passing a clean bill—WHY DO YOU HATE STORM VICTIMS?! It’s hard to think of another situation in which spending far more than one should on things that have nothing to do with helping people in the course of allegedly helping people is considered compassionate while questioning such spending is considered stone-hearted. How’d that kind of accounting work out for Wyclef Jean’s Yele charity of the “Three Cups of Tea” guy? But, hey, welcome to government. Expect less. Pay more.

The request from the White House is for a $60 billion package. That’d be fully three quarters of the amount the Democratic tax hike on those over $250,000 would bring in. ABC on its contents:

The request, which still needs the approval of Congress, includes billions in urgently needed aide. But it also features some surprising items: $23 million for tree plantings to “help reduce flood effects, protect water sources, decrease soil erosion and improve wildlife habitat” in forested areas touched by Sandy; $2 million to repair roof damage at Smithsonian buildings in Washington that pre-dates the storm; $4 million to repair sand berms and dunes at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and $41 million for clean-up and repairs at eight military bases along the storm’s path, including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The FBI is seeking $4 million to replace “vehicles, laboratory and office equipment and furniture,” while Customs and Border Protection wants $2.4 million to replace “destroyed or damaged vehicles, including mobile X-Ray machines.”

The Small Business Administration is seeking a $50 million slice of the pie for its post-storm response efforts, including “Small Business Development Centers and Women’s Business Development Centers.”

Politico tallies some of the millions, too:

Among the spending: $482 million to NOAA for severe weather forecasting, marine debris cleanup, repair of facilities and equipment and coastal ecosystem protection; $810 million to EPA for clean water and drinking water state revolving funds to upgrade water infrastructure; $5 million for EPA’s leaking underground storage tank cleanup program; $2 million for Superfund sites; $3 million to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to repair a New Jersey oil spill response testing facility; $78 million to the Fish and Wildlife Service for national wildlife refuges; and $4.4 million for Forest Service recovery efforts.

Republicans argue that FEMA still has $5 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund, according to ABC, so examining the bill shouldn’t endanger recovery. The Congressional Budget Office reveals just how much of the Senate Democratic bill, written from Obama’s request, is urgent:

While the bill calls for $60.4 billion, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only about $9 billion would be spent over the next nine months. An additional $12 billion would be spent the following year.

The bill is laden with big infrastructure projects that often require years to complete.

Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Brett Guthrie suggest scrutinizing such bills—imagine this—can prevent fraud and abuse:

Some Republicans said they want to see more detailed evidence to insure the money is needed to cover storm damages.

“We need to look and see what the real numbers are,” said Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., a member of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative Republicans. “We have had a tragic storm and we need to figure out how to help, but I don’t know yet what the actual number should be.”

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a frequent critic of spending he considers wasteful, said Sandy aid should be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere.

Coburn said there was significant waste, fraud and abuse in federal spending related to Hurricane Katrina recovery and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen if Sandy aid is rushed through Congress.

“They’re throwing things to see what will stick to the wall,” Coburn said. “Instead, we ought to be asking hard questions.”

Another loopy Republican wants to pass a smaller relief bill—Suggestion: the $9 billion to be spent this year or that plus the $12 billion for next year?— and then use data to determine where more money should go:

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky has said Congress may want to begin with a smaller aid package for immediate recovery needs and wait until more data can be collected about storm damages before approving additional money next year.

In a charity, such suggestions would be seen as sensible, imperative, even the moral obligation of those seeking to use resources to best help others. Not here. My thoughts and prayers and support are with the people still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. This account of slow progress in Rockaway thanks to a combination of neighbors helping neighbors, city workers, and outside volunteers is characteristic. A joint op-ed by the governors of the three most affected states reinforces the sheer amount of damage. I’m not arguing against a federal role in disaster recovery, though I think blind reliance on it in the immediate wake of a disaster lacks vital flexibility, but I do want to evaluate its efforts with at least the same rigor we bring to the Red Cross.

“We do have concerns about the fact that it’s so massive and that its individual branches are not separate corporations that we can analyze independently,” Berger told The Daily Beast. “When an organization is this large, I think it becomes harder to manage all of its moving parts. The potential for risk is enormous.”

We must get past the idea that a mere allocation of large amounts of money or passage of a bill is by itself the solution to a problem. This is something liberals understand perfectly well in other contexts. If spending more were always the answer, Mitt Romney would have won the TV ad war. See? Obama knew how to make critical decisions about where to best spend a finite amount of money in an election, and it worked for him. We should try the same thing in the federal government, even (especially!) in times of crisis.

Charity Navigator has a list of highly rated charities working in the area. Please consider a donation. If you’re among our readers in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut and have worked with smaller charities doing demonstrably good work on the ground, there, please let me know.