Welcome To This Month’s Edition Of Congressional Dysfunction

FEMA is about to run out of money, but don't worry your Congressman is getting his vacation time in.

The latest round of back-and-forth on Capitol Hill ended early this afternoon when the Senate rejected a revised Continuing Resolution that had been passed by the House but which contained provisions objectionable to Democrats:

An impasse between the House and Senate over a bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30 and provide financial aid to natural disaster victims got worse on Friday as the Senate easily shot down a House bill passed in the early hours of Friday morning. House members, considering their work done, headed back to their districts for a week’s recess.

The Senate voted 59 to 36 to set aside the latest House bill, with a handful of conservative Republicans joining with Democrats to deliver a quick and decisive rejection.

Democrats oppose the House measure on the grounds that it does not provide enough relief for disaster victims, and because that relief was offset by spending cuts to other programs near and dear to them; conservatives appeared to feel their House colleagues had failed to cut deeply enough.

The Senate action left Congress mired in an impasse with serious implications for the financing of federal agencies. The House and Senate were scheduled to begin a week-long recess Friday. But without an agreement on a bill to pay for federal operations beginning Oct. 1, the government would run out of money before lawmakers returned unless some resolution was found.

With House members heading out of town, Speaker John A. Boehner said Friday that the only way to advance the legislation, which would replenish the nearly empty coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and finance the federal government through mid-November, would be for the Senate to capitulate and accept the House bill.

“With FEMA expected to run out of disaster funding as soon as Monday, the only path to getting assistance into the hands of American families immediately is for the Senate to approve the House bill,” Mr. Boehner said. “This is no time for delay.”

But Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said he had been assured that FEMA had enough money to keep operating and set about scheduling further votes for next week unless the Senate agreed promptly to a version that Senate Democrats would find acceptable. Senator Mitch McConnell urged Mr. Reid to try to find a compromise that could win votes from both parties today, but the outlook for that seemed dim.

On Friday, a spokesman for President Obama expressed alarm at the inability of Congress to reach a deal.

“The members of Congress work for the American people,” said the spokesman, Jay Carney, in a briefing with reporters. “They work for the constituents who sent them here, in their districts and states. We are absolutely confident that the vast majority of those constituents are not asking very much when they insist that Congress perform the basic functions that they were sent here to perform, and that they do not let politics get in the way of what should be a relatively straightforward exercise of funding the government.”

He also criticized House Republicans for pushing a measure that the Senate opposed.

“The House Republicans once again passed something that they know can’t pass the Senate and therefore can’t become law, which is a perfect indication,” he said, that “the fever hasn’t broken.”

The provision that the Senate and Democrats in the House objected to was one which would have offset the cost of disaster relief by cutting an Energy Department program that subsidizes energy efficient cars. At this point, with Congress headed out of town and the Jewish holidays starting on Wednesday, it’s difficult to see how this is going to be resolved unless the Senate does in fact capitulate and pass the House bill. More importantly, though, it appears that Boehner is correct that FEMA’s disaster relief fund is about to run out of money:

As of Friday morning, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had just $175 million and will likely be empty next week for the first time in its history, the agency said. It is consulting with White House lawyers to determine what to do if funds dry up.

“The administration is committed to doing all it can under current legal authorities to continue vital operations, including assistance to individuals,” FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an e-mail. “But there is no question this is a critical situation and one we are watching closely.”

The disaster fund pays for all costs associated with presidentially declared disasters, including individual and public assistance payments and operational costs. Agency officials, who prefer to keep the fund flush with about $1 billion, quickly drained the account in late September after Hurricane Irene caused significant damage across 12 states and Puerto Rico.

After the hurricane, FEMA suspended payments for earlier disasters to pay for Irene-related cleanup efforts. Repeating steps that have been taken several times over the last decade, the move means further delay for at least $447 million worth of projects in 42 states, where officials are eager to close the books on long-standing reconstruction and mitigation projects.

Honestly, I’m not sure who qualifies as the “Party of No” in this particular situation. The House GOP has passed a bill that keeps the government funded through November, and rescues the FEMA disaster relief fund. Are the Democrats in the Senate really saying that they’re willing to risk a shutdown over cuts to a minor Energy Department program? The left is calling these partisan budget cuts, and perhaps they are. Quite honestly, anyone who’s surprised that there’s partisan activity going on in Washington is either being incredibly naive, or they’re just so blinded by their own partisanship that they can’t see the light. Of course the GOP is acting partisan, but so are the Democrats if they insist on risking creating chaos for people relying on FEMA relief over such a minor issue.

Harry Reid’s solution to this standoff is for the House to agree to drop the offsets from the bill. In the end, that’s probably not a bad outcome either. As Chris Christie noted several weeks ago, we’ve never worried about offsetting disaster aid with spending cuts before. Why do we have to start now, especially when we’re near the end of the Fiscal Year and there are new budgets that still haven’t been passed? In all honesty, I don’t think the American people care which side “wins” this latest kerfuffle, they just want Congress to get the work done. In the end, what matters for people outside the beltway isn’t how Congress does it but the fact that neither side wants to get anything done at all. The people are noticing that, and they’re not pleased.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    In all honesty, I don’t think the American people care which side “wins” this latest kerfuffle, they just want Congress to get the work done.

    Exactly. And both parties react to this by saying, “Fine, the people don’t care who wins, so it might as well be us.”

    And here we are.

  2. @Boyd:

    Yes this is true. Frankly I’m not sure what to do about it other than let Capitol Hill sink back into the swamp from whence it came.

  3. snarky bastard says:

    “In the end, that’s probably not a bad outcome either. As Chris Christie noted several weeks ago, we’ve never worried about offsetting disaster aid with spending cuts before. Why do we have to start now, especially when we’re near the end of the Fiscal Year and there are new budgets that still haven’t been passed? In all honesty, ”

    The party that breaks with long standing precedent and then gets out of town is the party that is responsible for the mess.

  4. ponce says:

    An odd position for the Republicans to take considering how many “Red” states have been hit with disasters lately.

  5. Boyd says:

    An odd position for the Republicans to take considering how many “Red” states have been hit with disasters lately.

    Wow, it’s almost like they’re standing on principle or something.

    Nah, that couldn’t ever happen.

  6. Wayne says:

    Re “we’ve never worried about offsetting disaster aid with spending cuts before.”

    Trying to excuse bad behavior now because of bad behavior in the past doesn’t fly. So called disaster\emergency funding which usually contained many non disaster\emergency expenditures should have been paid for in the past and should be paid in the future.

    How do you expect to fix bad behavior by excusing it and not being willing to change it?

  7. ponce says:

    Wow, it’s almost like they’re standing on principle or something.

    Thanks for the laugh, Boyd.

    I needed it.

    Anyhoo,

    Looks like the House wingnuts cracked and they’ll stay in town to vote on a more reasonable bill next week.

  8. mattb says:

    @Boyd:

    Wow, it’s almost like they’re standing on principle or something.

    And at least at first glance, that gives them the cover to win this issue. And, looking at the numbers, I actually think this move is ultimately a mistake for the democrats — especially since this is a reduction of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program and not a total defunding.

    That said, much of the program funds have been more or less already promised to grant applications which meas that it will ultimately probably cause some job loss. And by all accounts the program has been successful in creating jobs (though not without problems).

    For more on the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-advanced-technology-20110923,0,3203270.story

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @mattb: Even uber Republican neocon Charles Krauthammer disagrees. He thinks the teahardists Republicans are falling into a trap on this one. As unpopular as Obama might be the Republicans in congress are even more unpopular.

  10. anjin-san says:

    So called disaster\emergency funding

    Yea, if people lose their homes in a disaster we should probably just leave them outdoors to die. We need to cut back on “bad behavior”.

    Wayne is a republican all right.

    Now if Wayne’s home is ever destroyed, I wonder how long it will take him to have his hand out – 5 minutes? Ten?

  11. c.red says:

    Why is it that it is upon the Senate Democrats to accept the House Republican bill?

    The Senate has already passed a bill, without offsets and with the necessary funds – they made it very clear that the conditions of of the House bill were not acceptable before the it was even brought to the floor. How are the Democrats standing in the way of the emergency funding?

  12. Argon says:

    @Boyd: I think they’re just trying to get re-elected and are afraid of their primary voters.

  13. Wayne says:

    Anjin-san is unaware that a good deal of spending that has nothing to do with a actual disaster or emergency is attach to the disaster\emergency relief bills.

    Reacting to emergencies is not the bad behavior. The bad behavior is spending more money than you take in. It is spending money on pet projects disguising it as emergency relief. It is adding more spending to a budget without offsetting it. It is growing the government to unsustainable levels.

    Blinded by ignorance, Anjin-san is a democrat all right.

    P.S. I have insurance on my house.

  14. anjin-san says:

    The bad behavior is spending more money than you take in.

    Funny how quite you were about that when GW was running up record deficits & sending planeloads of cash to Iraq where they would vanish into thin air.