Transportation agencies and programs including the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Amtrak, and other transit stand to benefit handsomely from the Senate’s $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy spending bill, which it will consider this week.
Though cast as disaster relief, much of the bill’s spending would not reach the people and areas damaged by the storm. Further, the Senate’s failure to say how—or even if—it will pay for this new transportation and infrastructure spending recalls the spend-now-pay-later mentality that has driven budget deficits to over $1 trillion and sent the debt skyrocketing.
The disaster relief bill provides more than $12 billion for the Department of Transportation (DOT), of which $10.8 billion would go to the Public Transportation Emergency Relief program. This spending would in part pay for repairs to transit systems, but it could also be used for mitigation projects for future disasters. Further, up to $5.4 billion of the $10.8 billion could be diverted to other DOT agencies, to be spent on disaster mitigation and even to combat “the rise in sea levels.”
The Senate certainly is not wasting a crisis. Much of this likely is wish-list spending that would not survive today’s budget realities. As Heritage Foundation Visiting Fellow Matt Mayer wrote, that is precisely why such non-emergency spending belongs in next year’s budget request, so that the President and Congress can assess whether it is needed and how it ranks among other budget priorities.
Amtrak would make away with $336 million in the Senate bill, an amount 10 times more generous than the President’s initial request of $32 million. Considering Amtrak received roughly $1.4 billion in federal subsidies in 2012, the notion that it would need one-fourth of that amount for disaster relief seems suspicious. Indeed, the Senate bill would go way beyond funding repairs to damaged property, also using the money to shore up Amtrak’s operating losses, expand its rail capacity, and help it prepare for future disasters. These priorities are clearly outside the bounds of what constitutes emergency or disaster relief. If they merit funding, then Congress can debate them during next year’s budget process.
The Senate also decided to include $17 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in the disaster bill. Intended to assist low-income families with housing and economic revitalization, 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. As Heritage has written before, “When federal programs fail to meet their intended purpose or otherwise become outdated and ineffective, the responsible thing for Congress to do is eliminate them.” The CDBG program is no exception.
This disaster bill writ large is the latest iteration of Congress exploiting loopholes in last year’s Budget Control Act that allow for new spending above the $1.047 trillion cap for fiscal year 2013. Like the rest of the bill, if this new transportation and infrastructure spending is truly a priority, then the Senate should pay for it with budget cuts elsewhere. But it must steer clear of budget gimmicks such as phantom war savings or vague promises to reduce spending in the future.
Even by Washington’s standards, $60.4 billion is no small chunk of change. Rather than irresponsibly spend more, Congress must instead curb its extravagant spending. The Senate should pare back the obviously wasteful spending in this disaster bill, and send only truly legitimate emergency funding to the hurricane-ravaged cities in need.