When disaster strikes, whether through terrorist attacks, earthquakes or hurricanes, the federal government has a moral obligation to help Americans in need. But we can best do this and meet our other needs and obligations as a nation through consistent adherence to two important policies: fiscal responsibility, and efficiency and accountability in how all taxpayer dollars get spent, even those expended in an emergency.
At this point, the White House and Congress have failed in these two objectives.
First, our debt and ongoing yearly deficits have left us unprepared to meet the basic needs of our nation, much less step up and help when emergencies strike. Last year, the interest payments to finance the national debt were the second-largest item in the entire federal budget — $176 billion. Over the past four years, the president has passed the largest tax cut in history followed by two more massive tax-cut packages.
Prior to the hurricane-relief efforts, the United States has also seen the largest increase in entitlement spending in history, specifically the $723 billion Medicare prescription-drug benefit that passed in 2003. We have also spent more than $200 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The $150 billion to $200 billion estimated cost of repairing the damage done by hurricanes Katrina and Rita will add to this list, and drive our yearly deficit back over $400 billion.
Second, Congress has the responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that federal funds are going to be spent in an effective and efficient way. Congress must enact a commission, similar to the Truman Commission of World War II, to oversee how rebuilding and reconstruction contracts are awarded and managed. The Truman Commission was credited with frustrating war profiteering, saving taxpayers large sums of money — and doing so without regard to partisan politics.
Congress was right to pass emergency funds for hurricane relief, but we need to place more stringent controls on this money. The first two emergency spending bills for Hurricane Katrina hurtled through Congress, going straight to the House floor, with little oversight or transparency.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a relatively small organization and has limited experience in dealing with large sums of money. The Bush administration this year requested $3.13 billion for FEMA's regular budget; yet this agency now finds itself handling nearly 20 times that amount in emergency funds, with much more money likely coming along in the next few weeks. This is a recipe for fiscal irresponsibility unless there is aggressive oversight.
In past natural disasters, FEMA has demonstrated why oversight is so important. Newspapers in Miami-Dade County, Fla., reported that, after past hurricanes, FEMA handed out about $30 million worth of furniture, clothes, appliances and other relief to residents who sustained minimal hurricane damage.
House Resolution 3737, the Special Inspector General for Hurricane Katrina Recovery Act, which I am co-sponsoring, would establish a special inspector general (SIG) to provide independent and objective audits and investigations relating to spending on Hurricane Katrina recovery.
In part, this legislation requires the SIG to submit comprehensive reports to Congress and is similar to the special inspector general appointed to oversee Iraq reconstruction funds. The measure establishes an independent check on hurricane-relief funds, which is critical to ensuring fiscal accountability and responsibility.
When discussing relief spending, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay recently said, "Sure, there is going to be waste in money. You can't deal with 5 million people and not have waste in money." This is the wrong attitude. We must closely scrutinize what funds are being spent now and we must exercise fiscal discipline or the resulting debt will damage our economy for years to come.
Even with strict accountability on this emergency spending, our nation faces an enormous budgetary challenge. Time and time again, this White House and Congress have cut taxes or increased spending — for the war in Iraq, the prescription-drug benefit, higher farm subsidies — and simply added the cost to our ever-growing federal debt.
With a debt of nearly $8 trillion and yearly deficits of $400 billion or more, this irresponsible, free-lunch approach cannot continue. We must make the hard budget choices necessary — on taxes and spending — to get us back on the path to a balanced budget.