Could federal disaster relief become the next battleground over the federal deficit?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said over the weekend that because of the string of natural disasters in the past year, its disaster relief fund had dwindled to about $900 million. The agency said it might have to restrict recovery spending for other, recent natural disasters if Congress did not approve additional funds — a stark warning after the estimated multibillion dollars in damage caused by Hurricane Irene.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today urged Congress to avoid “political gridlock” and move quickly to approve more federal disaster funding in the wake of Hurricane Irene.
Political gridlock “should not be the first concern of the Congress,” Napolitano said. “I think the first concern of the Congress is what do we need to protect the health and safety of the people that we’re all privileged to represent. Congress knows that this is historically the way disaster relief has been funded.”
Video from the Christian Science Monitor:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Republicans would approve more disaster relief only if spending cuts were made elsewhere in the federal budget to make up the difference. Napolitano and others fear that disaster relief could become the latest political football in the emotionally-charged debate over the federal deficit.
“At the beginning of the fiscal year, they don’t give you a crystal ball,” Napolitano told reporters this morning. “So the way they do the [Disaster Relief Fund] is they get the three-year rolling average. And then if you need more, then at the end of the year there’s a supplemental” bill passed by Congress and money is held up until more funding is provided. She said Congress should continue to play by the established rules.
While calling for more funding, Napolitano said it was too early to tell just how much Hurricane Irene was going to cost.
“This was a very expensive storm,” she said, “It was a devastating storm and many people lost their lives.” She said critics who charge that the government overreacted to the threat of Irene “are working with the blinding clarity of hindsight.”
Napolitano also touched on the controversy over immigration policy in her remarks to reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
The Obama Administration announced earlier this month that DHS would prioritize the deportation of illegal immigrants with criminal convictions, and those who may pose a threat to the community. The plan has come under some criticism because it would not focus on deporting undocumented immigrants who are just living and working in the U.S.
“The numbers are going to be very robust in terms of numbers of removal — we don’t fool around about this,” Napolitano said. “Our border enforcement is second to none.”
Napolitano said the policy was driven by the reality of the immigration enforcement budget. She said Congress did not appropriate enough funds to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
“Congress should look at numbers if they want more deportations,” she said.
The DHS secretary also said that Congress does not provide enough money to jail all of the illegal immigrants the federal government picks up. That cost often falls on the border states.
GOP presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently wrote Napolitano requesting $349 million to cover the cost of jailing undocumented immigrants in his state. Perry billed the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly doing too little to secure the border.
Ironically, it’s a complaint that Napolitano herself made when she was governor of Arizona, and she joked that Perry seemed to have copied her letter and substituted Texas. But she said that paying the states for the costs of incarceration was not the job of DHS.
“This is not something that Congress has been willing to appropriate funds for,” Napolitano said. Her job, she said, “is to do everything I can to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who enter Texas and Arizona and New Mexico.”