Aug. 31, 2012 – 4:55 p.m.

Romney Gulf Visit Revives Debate on Disaster Aid Offsets

Extreme weather and the stormy presidential campaign have revived last summer’s congressional debate over how to pay for the aid that flows from Washington to communities hit by natural disasters.

Democrats used Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s trip to the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast on Friday as an occasion to remind voters of GOP insistence last year on cuts in other spending to offset the costs of disaster relief — and of aid reductions proposed in the fiscal 2013 budget resolution written by Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan.

Democrats said federal aid to the region hit this week by Hurricane Isaac would have been hampered by a demand for spending offsets had House Republicans prevailed in their quest last year.

“My hope is that Gov. Romney will leave Louisiana realizing that such an approach is overly bureaucratic, unworkable and terribly unfair,” said Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., went further, calling Romney’s visit the “height of hypocrisy” and pointing to Ryan’s intent to pare back federal disaster funding.

Republicans countered tbat Democrats were seeking to exploit a disaster in order to take shots at Ryan.“It’s sad that some see these heartbreaking events as opportunities to distort his record and play politics,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said in a written statement. “A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster aid is there for those in need. Period.”

The budget resolution adopted by the House (H Con Res 112) would limit disaster relief in order to reduce federal spending by an estimated $91 billion over a decade.

The debates over whether to cut spending in other parts of the budget in order to offset disaster relief came after a rare earthquake in the mid-Atlantic in August 201, and after widespread spring tornadoes.

The epicenter of the quake was in the Virginia district of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Among the areas hit hard by the storms were districts represented by powerful appropriators, including Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, who helps set the budget for the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Last year marked a record year, in fact, for presidential disaster declarations, causing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund to run nearly dry. Yet, even with FEMA putting the brakes on some less urgent projects to save funds in case of a catastrophe, House Republicans fought with Senate Democrats for much of last September in an attempt to offset any immediate injection of additional fiscal 2012 money.

Reid prevailed in the end, as FEMA made it to Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2011, on fiscal fumes and therefore did not need supplemental funds.

Romney spoke about disaster relief during his campaign for the nomination, and during a Republican presidential debate last year he suggested turning responsibility for disaster aid over to the states. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better,” he said in the June 2011 debate.

The country “cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” he said. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”