Back when he was still awesome, Rush Limbaugh use to say that the most dangerous place in America was between Chuck Schumer and a camera. And you just knew he was going to say something stupid about Hurricane Sandy:
Sen. Charles Schumer called the fallout from Hurricane Sandy a “national disaster” and called on a federal government to cover at least 90% of the costs.
“This is one of the biggest disasters to have ever struck this state and even this country,” Schumer said at an afternoon briefing with Gov. Cuomo. “The federal response has to measure that scope and be equal to that that scope.”
“We cannot cut corners. We cannot count nickels and dimes. This isn’t a New York disaster, a Connecticut disaster, a Jersey disaster. It is national disaster. It needs to be treated that way by every member of Congress, by all the members of the executive branch.”
But Mr. Schumer did say that any added money will be tacked onto the deficit, which already is expected to reach about $1 trillion in fiscal 2013. He rejected the suggestion that other programs should be cut in order to pay for any new budget needs, saying Democrats won that fight on previous emergency spending bills, too.
I have a very slight portion of agreement here in that the Feds should bear some of the pain for regional disasters that can overwhelm local and state governments. But the key word there is “some”. We are talking about some of the wealthier regions of the country. I don’t see why New York should not pick up the cost of, say, repairing the subway system or New Jersey should not pick up, say, the cost of fixing the electricity. There is not a part of this country that is not at risk of some natural disaster. Repairs, replacements, relief have to be part of the existing budget for state and local governments: a really rainy day fund. But … the Feds have picked up the tab for everything else and it would seem odd to suddenly change now.
That being said …
The idea that we should not cut other spending or raise taxes or make some kind budget room for disaster relief is ridiculous. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has gotten us $16 trillion in debt: never allowing for the inevitable “unexpected” expenses that find their way into the budget. Be it wars, “stimulus” or disaster relief, we just throw out the fiscal responsibility when the bill comes due. And then we wonder why we’re so far in debt.
Maybe you could do this if our finances were in good shape with the idea that we’d pay it off over the next year or two. But when we’re under a growing mountain of debt, every new expense has to be accommodated. That’s the whole idea behind PAYGO, no?
The research on bankruptcies has shown that most are the result of some catastrophe that hits a family: medical expense, job loss, etc. Bankruptcy is especially likely if the family has not squirreled away some money to anticipate a disaster. My wife and I only got our finances in order when we started to allow some budget room for unexpected expenses: car repairs, doctor bills, travel. I just found out a friend lost his job two months ago. But his family hasn’t suffered because they cut expenses and had a rainy day fund. I’m dubious of translating lessons about family budgets to the federal budget, but in this case I think it’s apt. Everyone has to budget for the unexpected.
Our federal budget does not, for obvious reasons, have a rainy day fund. But the reason we need to get the deficit under control is precisely to deal with unexpected huge expense that might hit us out of the blue (like a hurricane; or a war). And that means that, given the current budget situation, any disaster relief for Sandy has to be balanced by tax hikes or budgets cuts. We simply don’t have the flexibility, when we’re fighting over a few hundred million here and there, to say, “Oh yeah, here’s $50 billion. Don’t worry about it.” And we don’t have the leeway to keep thinking of the government as a bottomless piggy bank.