Will Congress exploit Hurricane Harvey to pass pork-barrel spending?

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As Hurricane Harvey rips through Texas, the state’s congressional delegation — one of the largest in Congress — is scrambling to direct federal resources to impacted parts of the state.

The state’s two Republican senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, are ­­under fire from one of their colleagues for the perceived hypocrisy of their requests. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) attacked the senators for voting against emergency supplemental funding for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, claiming that their upcoming request for Hurricane Harvey aid is hypocritical.

That statement is as counterfactual as it is ignorant.

{mosads}In 2012, President Obama requested a $60.4 billion supplemental funding bill from Congress, ostensibly to fund reconstruction efforts in the parts of the country most impacted by Hurricane Sandy.


However, that’s not what Congress gave him, or what he signed. Instead, the bill was loaded up with earmarks and pork barrel spending, so much so that only around half of the bill ended up actually being for Sandy relief.

Consider just a handful of the goodies contained in the final legislation: 

  • $150 million for Alaska fisheries (Hurricane Sandy was on the east coast of the US; Alaska is the country’s western most tip);
  • $2 million for the Smithsonian Institution to repair museum roofs in Washington, D.C. (a city largely unaffected by Hurricane Sandy);
  • $8 million to buy cars and equipment for the Homeland Security and Justice departments (at the time of the Sandy supplemental, these agencies already had 620,000 cars between them);
  • $1.1 million to repair national cemeteries (because why not?);
  • $821 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge waterways with no relation to Hurricane Sandy (the Corps never likes to waste a disaster);
  • $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses (it seemed like a good idea);
  • $118 million for AMTRAK ($86 million to be used on non-Sandy related Northeast corridor upgrades).

As if the collective non-disaster-related efforts of the bill needed to be underlined in a big red pen, only 15 percent of the bill’s funding was directed to be spent in the first fiscal year. Nearly 64 percent of the massive supplemental was spent well after 2014, as late as 2021 (Sandy hit in late 2012).

Tellingly, a year after Sandy made landfall, 74 percent of the bill’s funding remained unspent, leaving disaster victims desperate for help.

An efficient, well-coordinated and urgent response to a disaster? Hardly. 

All things considered, the Sandy supplemental represented the worst of special interest directed, unaccountable, pork-barrel spending in Washington. In fact, the largesse that was the Sandy supplemental — again, only about half of which was dedicated hurricane relief spending — dwarfed the budgets of many federal agencies. Both the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security received less money on an annual basis that year than the bloated spending passed by Congress.

On that measure alone, the Cruz and Cornyn no votes were more than justified.

One would hope that any disaster aid Congress passes for Harvey will be substantially more focused on the actual disaster at hand.

As Congress prepares that request, however, it’s worth pointing out a perennial truth about the government’s disaster response efforts — they’re usually sub-par. (Need I even mention the scale of incompetence that characterized the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina?)

Government problem solving is generally “sluggish and uninspired.” Private philanthropy and charitable efforts, on the other hand, are more imaginative, flexible, nimble and efficient.

Compare the federal effort, which spent less than half of its funds on Sandy relief, to charities in New York State alone. According to a report put out by the Office of the New York State Attorney General, 80 organizations reported raising more than $658 million in Sandy relief, and spending over 91 percent of those funds for that purpose.

Celebrity efforts raised close to $90 million, much of it directed through the Robin Hood Foundation, which disbursed 100 percent of the money to Sandy victims. Private citizens stepped up as well. The Red Cross reported it received $308 million in donations for Sandy emergency relief and recovery, with the majority of the money going toward food, shelter and individual casework and assistance.

Houston is under water, and it’s absolutely clear that a disaster is underway on the southern border. A federal response is critical — but so is a private one. Rep. King is right when he contrasts the Sandy spending to future spending in response to Harvey — one hopes the latter will actually help Harvey’s victims, rather than the special interests which Sandy spending continues to fund.

Rachel Bovard (@Rachel_Bovard) is the senior director of policy for The Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit group headed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint aimed at promoting limited government.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Hurricane Harvey John Cornyn John Cornyn Peter King Rachel Bovard Ted Cruz Ted Cruz Texas

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