Critics hit Sandy storm disaster aid add-ons

Billions not tied to hurricane relief set for House

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A $51 billion GOP-crafted Superstorm Sandy relief package scheduled to hit the House floor Tuesday includes billions of dollars in non-emergency spending — angering budget hawks, government-watchdog groups and many Republicans who say the bill is the latest example of out-of-whack government priorities.

The package, which includes a $17 billion main bill and a $34 billion amendment, would pump cash into the National Flood Insurance Program to keep paying out claims for Sandy victims. But it also includes billions of dollars for a litany of non-Sandy related items, such as Amtrak upgrades, FBI salaries, road projects in states unaffected by the storm and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Critics say that while many of those items are worthy recipients of federal money, they should be subject to the normal budgetary process and not stuck in a bill designed to help victims of the megastorm that ripped through parts of the eastern United States in late October.

“Everyone knows we have to enact Sandy disaster assistance for those impacted. But we have to be sure we do it in an appropriate and effective manner,” Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a prepared statement last week. “We cannot afford to fund our prevention, protection and resiliency [measures] in slipshod, occasional emergency-spending bills.”

An analysis by the independent federal budget watchdog shows the package includes non-emergency items such as:

• $25 million to improve weather and hurricane intensity forecasting

• $118 million for Amtrak for Northeast Corridor upgrades

• $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses

• $2 billion for the Federal Highway Administration to spend on roads across the country

• $16 billion for the Community Development Fund that would go not only to Sandy-affected states, but to any major disaster declarations since 2011.

The House and Senate easily passed an initial $9.7 billion installment for Sandy relief Jan. 4. But the latest House effort likely will face significantly more resistance, particularly from Republicans who are pushing for the package to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who was among the 161 House Republicans to vote in favor of the first Sandy-relief bill, said he did so because the government has a “contractual” obligation to cover those enrolled in the congressionally formed National Flood Insurance Program. But he suggested he won’t automatically support the second measure, saying he will “continue to fight for offsets in any future disaster-relief bills.”

More than 75 mostly Republican-sponsored amendments have been filed for this week’s Sandy package, ranging from a call to cancel all foreign aid except for Israel and Pakistan as a way to pay for storm relief, to cutting tens of millions of dollars for weather-forecasting improvements, to streamlining the appeal process for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Few, if any, of the amendments will survive.

In addition to the main Sandy-relief package, the House on Monday is slated to take up a bill that would reform the way the government doles out disaster-relief aid. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham, California Republican, and co-sponsored by another Republican and two Democrats, would allow FEMA to issue grants based on damage estimates instead of a reimbursement system. The proposal is designed to avoid delays and to give local governments greater flexibility to rebuild storm-damaged areas.

The Denham bill, which is on a fast-track calendar and is expected to pass, also calls for streamlining the environmental review process for hazard mitigation projects. And it would require the president to establish an expedited review of environmental and historic requirements when rebuilding damage infrastructure.

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