By Gerald Shields
In February, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., wrote to President Barack Obama warning him that the nation's Disaster Relief Fund had dwindled to dangerous levels.
The former chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on disaster recovery called on Obama to send an emergency spending bill to Congress to replenish the fund in the wake of floods and tornadoes that wrecked the midsection of the nation.
The money never came.
Last weekend, Hurricane Irene ravaged the east coast where Obama named four more states disaster areas, eligible for low-interest federal loans and grants from the Disaster Relief Fund.
With a month to go before the federal government's fiscal year ends, the fund contains about $660 million. That's significantly below the $1 billion cushion that federal emergency managers recommend, even before they begin to tally the damage costs of Hurricane Irene.
"It should have been clear to anyone observing this situation that we were running out of money for that fund," Landrieu said.
Despite Landrieu's call and the Hurricane Irene recovery needs, Congress is about to battle over how much disaster relief funding should be designated for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., recently said any new money for disaster relief should come from money cut from the federal budget.
Much like during the current year's budget and recent national debt ceiling debate, disaster money appears to be heading for the congressional wrestling ring in yet another grudge match between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.
Like the national debt ceiling that has been routinely passed without debate before the most recent wrangling, Congress has approved 33 emergency appropriations for disaster relief since 1989, without offsetting money from budget cuts elsewhere.
Mixing politics with disaster relief is dangerous, said Landrieu, who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that doles out federal funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates the fund.
"We are eventually paying for these, much like we paid for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Landrieu said of the disasters. "Now is not the time to squabble about this. Now is the time to act."
The White House has justified its current-year appropriation to the Disaster Relief Fund. The budgeting is based on a five-year rolling average of events that cost less than $500 million, with the contingency that more catastrophic disasters would be addressed through the emergency spending process.
On Thursday, however, the Obama administration announced that it will seek an additional $5.2 billion for disaster relief starting in October, acknowledging that the money does not include the damage caused by Irene, which may have to be addressed through the emergency process.
Last year, long-term disaster repair projects were suspended for five months due to the fund shortfall. Because of new disaster needs, FEMA recently halted relief to Joplin, Mo., where 100 people were killed by tornadoes earlier in the year.
"That's unconscionable," Landrieu said of the funding halts.
Republicans have shown an ability to increase disaster funding through budget cuts. In approving their version of the budget, they increased money to the Disaster Relief Fund by 40 percent to $3.65 billion, close to double the amount of money requested by Obama.
The cuts, however, came through Homeland Security funds such as first responder grants, transit security, port security and urban security grants, including anti-terrorism funding for Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The rest of the money came from a U.S. Department of Energy program to make cars more fuel efficient.
The Republican call for cuts has put Louisiana House Republicans in a bind. They remember how the federal government poured over $126 billion in its response to Hurricane Katrina six years ago, money that included everything from temporary and permanent housing to levee rebuilding.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman and dean of the Louisiana House delegation elected in 2002, said although the American public wants Congress to stifle spending, funding disaster emergencies has generally been supported.
"Overspending is something everyone is concerned about, but I'm not sure that if there is a Katrina, World Trade Center or Irene that the public, by a large percentage either way, is demanding an offset," Alexander said.
Former Democratic Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco recalled begging President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress for as much help as possible. Blanco expressed anger over the call for budget offsets in return for disaster aid.
"I don't think Americans are willing to die waiting for an act of Congress to decide if they're worthy of help," Blanco said.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said he saw his district wrecked by Hurricane Rita after Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore. Boustany, however, said the experience in responding to the disaster also showed that the process was fraught with fraud, waste and abuse.
Disaster spending should be made with an eye on the budget, Boustany said.
"There is a federal obligation when you have a multistate disaster and Congress has stepped up to meet that," said Boustany, who is getting ready to join colleagues returning to Washington on Tuesday. "That will be a big debate when we get up there."
U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge and elected in 2008, said the memory of Katrina must be a consideration in the current disaster funding debate.
"We in Louisiana are grateful that the nation was so generous to us, and we need to be generous to others," Cassidy said. "That said, if we can find offsets, we should find offsets."
Landrieu will jump in the debate again Tuesday when she begins working on the House bill as part of her duties as the appropriations subcommittee chairwoman with oversight over FEMA. Landrieu is expected to ask for a significant increase over the $3.65 billion proposed by the House for the disaster fund.
"We should not put petty politics above the needs of disaster victims," Landrieu said.
Blanco wished well the governors from the states affected by Irene -- New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Vermont -- saying they have their hands full. She expressed hope that their needs will be met.
"We have a nation that has a heart," Blanco said. "We do have priorities."