Though the near-insolvency of FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is top news today, the situation should hardly come as a surprise. For the past several months, NPR has been following the looming crisis, and I’ve been commenting along the way.
Back in May, I talked about challenges that lay ahead:
“You can imagine that members of Congress probably have other funding priorities, and they’d rather not just set aside funding for future disasters — they’d rather spend it on current priorities,” [Kaniewski] says.
It’s likely Congress will have to find more disaster aid in coming months.
A month later, I said, based on my belief at the time that Congress would act before funding became a crisis situation, that:
“It’s more of a cash-flow issue,” he says. “It’s not something we should lay awake at night and say, ‘Oh, my God, the disaster relief fund is going to be emptied for these long-term projects.’”
Later, in August, I commented that it was appropriate for FEMA Administrator Fugate to reprioritize the funding then available to him in the DRF:
“[Administrator Fugate has] got to deal with the cards he’s been dealt,” says Kaniewski. “He has a limited amount of money, and he realizes, rightly so, that money has to be allocated for the most pressing needs. And right now, it’s those individuals who have been impacted by Hurricane Irene — they need to be provided the assistance to make sure they have a roof over their heads.”
Now, the equation has changed. When the DRF was running low, the situation was concerning but manageable. Now it’s precarious. Thus, on Friday, I said:
“What if there was a disaster tomorrow? We can’t predict what’s going to happen next — a terrorist attack, a hurricane or wildfires, whatever it may be,” Kaniewski says. “[Administrator Fugate] needs to be able to provide the victims of those disasters immediate assistance. And as of Tuesday, he’s not going to be able to do that.”
The challenge that now confronts FEMA isn’t something that Administrator Fugate can fix. His hands are tied by Congress. He may only provide funding to state and local governments based on what Congress appropriates to the DRF. Allocating funds in excess of what is appropriated would be a violation of the Antideficiency Act. A federal official who violates the Act is subject to administrative and criminal penalties, to include removal from office, fines and/or imprisonment.
Thus the Administrator could soon be in a no-win situation if the DRF runs dry: either he provides funding to disaster victims (and in doing so, violates federal law) or he watches those in need go without the assistance they require.
I don’t think any of us want to see Administrator Fugate removed from the helm of FEMA or face jail time if he provides funding to disaster victims. Congress must cut the Gordian Knot that currently binds Fugute’s hands by setting politics aside and funding the DRF.