There is no doubt that Hurricane Sandy rendered unspeakable damage to lives and property on our East Coast. It truly represents one of the great natural disasters of recent history. For millions of our fellow citizens, the devastation has been unfathomable. We are a compassionate nation, and that is why this week the House of Representatives is taking up its second Hurricane Sandy relief bill.
Sadly, Hurricane Sandy isn’t the only disaster we face as a nation. The tragic reality is that our nation is broke. We have amassed more debt in the last four years than was accumulated from President George Washington through President Bill Clinton. Our spending trajectory is unsustainable by any account. Our swelling $16.4 trillion debt threatens our national security, our economic well-being and our children’s very future. If we don’t quit spending money we don’t have, it is they who will become the next victims — think Greece. It is past time to re-examine the proper role of the federal government in providing disaster relief and how that relief is financed.
In the wake of a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy, all agree, no matter what, that disaster victims must receive basic necessities like food, water, power, medicine and law enforcement. This is undebatable. Yet as we continue to borrow more than 30 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, can and should the federal government continue to fund the restoration of private homes, businesses and automobiles? When wealthy states like New York and Connecticut spent $4.7 million on streetscapes and $30 million a year in taxpayer funds to rent new office space while state-rented office space stood vacant, can and should the federal government continue to pay to rebuild their infrastructure?
According to a recent report by the Heritage Foundation, the yearly average for disaster declarations has grown from 28 during the Reagan administration to 90 during the Clinton administration, 130 during the George W. Bush administration, and 153 during the Obama administration. This isn’t just nature at work. This is a move toward “nationalizing” disaster, consequently lowering the threshold of what is considered truly disastrous. This has allowed states and localities to abdicate more and more of their responsibilities to a federal government that owns a printing press for money and has no balanced budget requirements. Also, spending restraint is usually the first thing to go in the heat of a crisis — especially when someone else is picking up the tab.
Case in point: The Sandy relief bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate — the same Senate that has refused to pass a budget in the last three years — includes $150 million for fisheries as far away as Alaska, $8 million to purchase cars for the Homeland Security and Justice Departments, $58.8 million to replant trees that were damaged on private land, $135 million to improve weather forecasting, and $10.78 billion largely for future construction improvements to public transportation not even related to Hurricane Sandy. In fact, 64 percent of the so-called “emergency” funding in this bill will not be spent until 2015 or later. We must always be vigilant to ensure the Obama administration’s cynical motto, “never let a serious crisis go to waste,” is not allowed to rule the day.
Given our spending-driven debt crisis, changes must be made. Like many members of Congress, when disaster has befallen my district or state, I have worked to help ensure funding was provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, I have consistently fought for disaster funds to either be in the budget or offset through the rescission of lower-priority spending. A nation on the road to bankruptcy must prioritize its spending. There should be no more “emergency” disaster funding without offsetting cuts to lower priority spending.
Next, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) must be functionally and significantly reformed. I have long been critical of this ineffective, inefficient and indisputably costly experiment in government-provided flood insurance. The program operates with non-actuarial rates, encouraging unsustainable development and running up $21 billion in debt with zero hope of repayment. A reauthorization bill passed last year began eliminating outdated subsidies, but Sandy hit before many of these provisions could take effect. Certainly, we have a contractual obligation to pay the NFIP claims of people whose lives were turned upside down by this terrible storm. Yet we also have an obligation to ensure hard-working taxpayers aren’t always stuck bailing out failed government programs. The Financial Services Committee, for which I am chairman, will take up legislation to get the government out of the subsidized insurance business and transition us to a private, stable insurance system that can keep the promises it makes without borrowing tens of billions of dollars that we do not have.
America is not just operating on borrowed money — we’re operating on borrowed time. Today, it is not a question of if bond markets will turn on us, but when. Unless we change our out-of-control spending ways, we will be the first generation in American history to leave the next generation with less freedom, fewer opportunities and a lower standard of living. We have no greater moral responsibility than to preserve the blessings of liberty and opportunity for future generations. A compassionate nation will not allow a great physical tragedy of today to ever become an even greater fiscal tragedy for our children tomorrow.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
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