WASHINGTON — More than $3 billion for 9/11 recovery efforts. More than $15 billion to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Nearly $20 billion to help victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
They’re huge sums of money — all approved by Congress, then handed down to states and cities, which use the cash under strict federal rules.
But under President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint, the program that put those dollars into local hands would be zeroed-out, raising questions about how readily the cash would be available when the next disaster strikes and what oversight would be in place to ensure it is not misused.
“Is the administration actually sun-setting the entire program and cutting staff? Because there is no alternative federal program that exists to fund complete community recovery in the aftermath of a disaster,” said Jeffrey Thomas, an attorney who served as a special assistant to New Orleans’ recovery and development office after Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA responds, then HUD steps in
When disaster happens, all eyes turn to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s that department that foots the bill for immediate response efforts, such as bottled water and hotel vouchers. FEMA also covers the longer-term costs of repairing public assets, from water pipes to public schools.
But helping private property owners is another matter. Federal money to help homeowners and business operators rebuild and to build new infrastructure not covered by FEMA traditionally has been funneled through the Community Development Block Grant Program, dubbed CDBG. It’s run by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For instance, after Katrina and Rita, the state of Louisiana used $9 billion in CDBG money to fund individual grants to help owners rebuild their flooded homes.
Another $715 million went toward long-term community redevelopment; in New Orleans, the money was used to buy land for a new Veterans Administration hospital, provide incentives for fresh grocers to set up in storm-ravaged areas and fund dozens of similar projects, Thomas said.
“That money comes quick,” said retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, an expert in emergency preparedness and disaster recovery, who spearheaded efforts to secure New Orleans in the days after Katrina. “People have relied on those block grants to get those communities back up. The availability of that money, I cannot overstate it.”
And there’s the rub.
Trump’s plan proposes eliminating the CDBG budget, an estimated savings of $3 billion. The administration claims “the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.” Federal resources would be redirected to “other activities,” the blueprint says.
Delivering federal disaster money
In an ordinary year — one without a major disaster — local governments use CDBG money to supplement their operating budgets in ways that are supposed to help the disadvantaged. Some give a portion to community organizations, such as Meals on Wheels, to achieve that goal.
But after an earthquake or a terror attack, the same federal apparatus gears up to deliver enormous congressional appropriations to communities in need.
“We’re talking billions of dollars that are instantly allocated,” Thomas said. “When you zero-out CDBG, that’s one thing. If you dismantle the program entirely, you’re dismantling any ability to move that money through to disaster-affected areas.”
That doesn’t mean federal money wouldn’t be available for communities in need, Honoré said.
“Congress would find another way to do it,” he said. “They’ll find another way to get that money to communities.”
But until the Trump team provides more details, it’s not clear how recovery dollars would get to people in need.
“What’s going to happen? Have the staff twiddling their thumbs until a disaster?” Thomas said. “It doesn’t suggest they’ve thought this through.”
Dems: Proposal ‘dead on arrival’ in House
Republicans on Capitol Hill Thursday applauded the ramp up in defense spending and cuts to non-military expenditures in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, while Democrats argued he was jeopardizing programs critical to American families.
Trump released a $1.1 trillion budget outline that proposes a $54 billion increase in defense spending offset by deep cuts to the State Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as dozens of other federal programs.
“To dramatically increase spending on defense and significantly cut spending on the diplomats and development professionals that work hand in glove with our Defense Department in difficult and dangerous parts of the world like Iraq and Afghanistan is unwise,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day.”
“It shows an over reliance on the military and an under appreciation of the power and effectiveness of diplomacy,” Coons added.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, ranking member of the committee on Homeland Security, said Trump’s budget is a “conservative fantasy” that lacks “rational justification.”
“Democrats and Republicans agree: this ‘skinny’ budget is dead on arrival. President Trump’s first budget is nothing more than a conservative fantasy to slash government with no rational justification,” the Mississippi Democrat said. “His budget highlights his obsession with mass deportations and building a border wall while making clear he is more concerned with keeping campaign promises than keeping the country safe and secure.”
“Let it be clear — the billions dedicated to massive deportations and a wall along our southwest border hold little promise of preventing a terrorist attack,” Thompson added.
In addition to proposing cuts to the State Department by 28%, Trump’s plan aims to dramatically remake the federal government by slashing EPA funds by 31% and HUD by 13.2%.
Coons said these reductions harm American families.
“I’m also really concerned about deep cuts to the Department of Agriculture, the department of EPA and programs that help make sure that our water is clean and our air is clear,” he said. “Things that protect the health of average American families all over the country.”
Trump’s budget also would end funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Institute of Peace, among others.
Democratic National Committee deputy chairman Rep. Keith Ellison, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primaries last year, argued on Twitter that Hillary Clinton never would have cut the programs Trump’s budget targets.
“For @realDonaldTrump it’s all about power, control, money – acquired by whatever means. Science, morality, common sense? Not in the picture,” Ellison tweeted.
Sanders called Trump’s budget “morally obscene” and harmful to many of those who Trump pledged to assist.
“President Trump’s budget is morally obscene and bad economic policy. It will cause devastating pain to the very people Trump promised to help during the campaign,” he said in a statement. “Trump’s priorities are exactly opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, also opposed Trump’s budget request to eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been a critical tool in our efforts to help protect and restore Lake Erie, and when the Obama administration proposed cuts to the program, I helped lead the effort to restore full funding,” he said in a statement. “I have long championed this program, and I’m committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding.”
Most Republicans, however, cheered the budget.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, however, said the cuts are in taxpayers’ best interests.
“We want to deliver the services, we want to make things clean, but we’re going to take all this stuff that comes out of the EPA that’s brainwashing our kids, that’s propaganda, things that aren’t true, allegations,” said Inhofe, who famously once brought a snowball to the Senate floor to argue against evidence that global temperatures are rising.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, added that government programs that are “duplicative or not delivering results” have to be cut.
“Our nation currently faces massive budget and spending challenges requiring the attention of this new administration, and improving the effectiveness of the federal government should be job one,” Enzi said in a statement. “It is crucial to allocate taxpayer resources efficiently in order to improve and eliminate government programs that are duplicative or not delivering results.”
“This will allow policymakers to support important priorities, while also helping to address the nation’s mammoth national debt,” Enzi added.
The cuts to various foreign aid programs will allow money to be spent on the needs of Americans, Sen. Mike Lee said.
“While our intentions abroad are oftentimes noble, it is important to remember that we have many pressing needs at home. We should prioritize spending that will address these domestic needs, thus fulfilling our promise to put Americans first again,” the Utah Republican said. “The defense of our nation, on the other hand, is one of the few constitutional spending obligations we have, and we should continue to proceed with these budgets carefully and prudently.”
The House Freedom Caucus praised what it said was Trump’s commitment to conservatism.
“Currently reviewing @POTUS’ #budget. We’re pleased to see a focus on limiting gov’t where appropriate while strengthening our nat’l defense,” the group tweeted.
Congress ultimately will have the last say on the budget. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said Congress will take a close look at the budget given that the body has “the power of the purse.”
“While the President may offer proposals, Congress must review both requests to assure the wise investment of taxpayer dollars,” the New Jersey Republican said. “I’m optimistic that we can strike a balance that will enable us to fund the federal government responsibly and address emergency needs, while ensuring this legislation will clear the Congress.”