As FEMA funds run out, senators from states with most disasters oppose funding bill

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Firemen battle wildfires in Texas. 

Erich Schlegel/AP

Eleven Republican U.S. senators who represent the states with the most FEMA-declared disasters since the start of 2009 voted against a bill designed to keep the agency’s disaster relief fund from running out of cash, an iWatch News analysis reveals.

The top two states, Texas and Oklahoma, combined for more than a quarter of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s declared disasters since Jan. 1, 2009. Still, the four Republicans from those states most frequently aided by FEMA opposed legislation to increase the fund without offsets. One of them, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, said to do so would be “unconscionable.”

Along with Texas (75 disasters) and Oklahoma (45), seven other states also had 10 or more disasters declared since the start of 2009, shortly before President Obama took office. All seven Democratic senators from these states joined with a unanimous Democratic conference and eight Republicans to advance legislation to add $5.1 billion to the fund. In the wake of costly relief efforts following Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and wildfires across Texas, FEMA’s relief fund teetered on the verge of running out of money this week, with few dollars remaining to get the agency through the end of the fiscal year.

But most Senate Republicans and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives balked at the price tag of the Democratic bill, arguing that any infusion of extra FEMA funds should be paid for by cuts elsewhere. On Sept. 13, the Senate advanced a stand-alone bill by a mostly party-line 61 to 38 vote.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and a member of his party’s leadership, told CNN that the Democrats “manufactured a crisis… Everyone knows we’ll pay every penny of disaster aid that the President declares and FEMA certifies.” Senate Democrats objected to Republican proposals to offset increased FEMA costs through spending cuts, including cuts to clean energy programs for the automobile industry. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan decried the GOP approach for its “job-killing offset to what is an important disaster assistance bill.”

On Monday, the Senate passed a package to avert a government shutdown after stripping some of the FEMA provisions from the bill when the agency affirmed that it now appears to have sufficient funds to close out the year.

“It’s political maneuvering,” says Ben Smilowitz, executive director for the Disaster Accountability Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to holding disaster relief agencies accountable. He said elected officials often pressure FEMA and the White House for quick aid when disaster strikes in their districts. As such, he told iWatch News, “It’s a little ironic that members of Congress are trying to reign in FEMA when often they’re the ones pressuring the agency to reverse decisions to release funds for their state.”

Such pressures were evident in May when FEMA denied assistance to Texas to help battle wildfires. Both Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison made public statements decrying the decision not to provide aid to the state, while Gov. Rick Perry hinted that he believed the Obama administration was pursuing a vendetta against Texas.

“We’ve yet to enter the hottest months of the year and already wildfires have wreaked havoc in Texas—yet our state has not received sufficient federal disaster aid,” Cornyn said at the time.

FEMA numbers show that Texas, with 75 declared disasters since the start of 2009, has had by far the largest number of FEMA declarations of any state. And when they had the opportunity to vote more funds for FEMA last week, both senators voted against the Democrats’ bill; on Monday, they did not record votes on a newer resolution. Neither responded to a request for comment.

Perry, now a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has steered clear of the FEMA fight in Congress and his campaign spokesman did not respond to requests to comment on this story. Despite his campaign rhetoric against the federal government, Perry has come to rely on it for aid, with federal money making up more than half of the state’s funding for emergencies. And after recently making massive cuts to state funding for volunteer fire departments across the state, Perry requested more FEMA funds to help battle wildfires that have devastated the state.

After being denied the FEMA funds he sought, Perry said in May, “It is not only the obligation of the federal government, but its responsibility under law to help its citizens in times of emergency.”

Although Texas leads the way in declared disasters during this time period, it lags in total dollars received from FEMA with about $20 million.

The state that received the most money was Kentucky, with about $293 million, most of which came after a severe ice storm in February 2009. Kentucky is represented in the Senate by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and freshman Rand Paul, Republicans who voted against both the Sept. 13 bill and the two bills this week. Both Senators indicated they would be in favor of additional funding for FEMA only if it came with the offsets like those in the House version of the bill, although McConnell said on the Senate floor “In my view, this entire fire-drill was completely unnecessary.”

After the 2009 ice storm, McConnell was grateful for the speed of the federal government’s disaster aid. “Doing that has triggered the release of urgently needed federal authority and funds that will give the people of my state the help they desperately need,” he said then. “I want to thank the governor for his quick and decisive action, as well as President Obama for his speedy response. It is making a real difference in the lives of Kentuckians as we speak.”

Arkansas (about $254 million) and Missouri (about $222 million) round out the top three states that have received the most FEMA money since January 2009. (Data on the FEMA site is current through June 15 of this year.)

Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman voted against both bills, despite his praise for FEMA in June. “From the feedback I received while visiting Arkansans during that state work period, FEMA has been very responsive and helpful to Arkansans in need,” he wrote after a series of vicious storms tore through his state.

Spokesman Patrick Creamer told iWatch News, “Senator Boozman strongly supports supplemental disaster relief funding, especially in light of the recent disasters in Arkansas.  The problem is not if we should have a bill, but how to pay for the additional money needed.” Without changes, he said, “Senator Boozman could not, in good conscience, vote for a bill that would put this country in further financial straits.”

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri broke with Republicans on the Sept. 13 vote, but opposed advancing the larger Democratic spending proposal on Monday. He issued a release afterwards acknowledging that in the wake of the catastrophic Joplin tornado in May, his state needed all the FEMA aid it could get, but called for the Senate to simply pass the House version, including the offsets, in order to speed the process along.

Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill both backed the Democratic proposals.

What would the result of offsets be? Smilowitz, of the Disaster Accountability Project, warns that requiring offsets for FEMA funding may actually hinder future disaster response. “If we had to offset the response to 9/11 or Katrina or Hurricane Ike, what the result would [have been] with lives lost and suffering on the ground?” he asked.

Republicans counter that asking for offsets is nothing new. Becky Bernhardt, deputy press secretary for Oklahoma Sen. Coburn, pointed to the Oklahoma City bombing case. “The 1995 emergency disaster assistance bill that included relief funds for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing that was entirely offset," she told iWatch News.

That bill paired $7.2 billion in emergency funding with $16.3 billion in budget rescissions, cuts to unspent federal appropriations. As to Coburn’s opposition to the bill which helps disaster-ridden states like Oklahoma with recovery efforts, Bernhardt said “Working to find ways to pay for bills and not just add them to our already enormous pile of debt, has always been and continues to be, a priority” for Coburn and he opposes increasing FEMA spending without offsets. Coburn, like the senators from Texas, did not vote on Monday’s bill.

Though it had origins in the early 1800s, FEMA as it exists today was created by an executive order from President Carter in 1979 at the request of the National Governors Association, which wanted to centralize the federal agencies that dealt with emergencies. Although started with an eye towards dealing with fallout from a war, FEMA began focusing more on disaster relief and recovery in the early 1990s.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., another elected official from a state with double digit FEMA declarations, agreed that offsets are needed. Press secretary Paul Donahue told iWatch News that the senator voted against the Democrats bill last week because “That bill was never really intended to pass. It was pretty irresponsible.” Johanns voted against Monday’s bill.

Like Johanns, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against both bills. His spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the former presidential candidate “believes we should offset spending wherever we can rather than adding to the deficit and debt.”

The offices of Sens. Paul, McConnell, Alexander, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas did not return requests for comment