Is Drought Relief Now a Part of Homeland Security?

House conservatives are trying to block–or at least offset with equivalent spending cuts–$3.1 billion in drought relief for Midwestern farmers that was slipped into the Senate version of the Homeland Security appropriations bill.

That bill already includes $10.2 billion in emergency spending for hurricane relief. Meanwhile, Congress is headed toward a post-election lame-duck session during which most of next year’s department budgets will be rolled into one massive omnibus bill that legislators can load up with pork-barrel earmarks.

‘Emergency’ Spending

Rep. Sue Myrick (R.-N.C.), outgoing chairwoman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), told HUMAN EVENTS on September 30 that no decision had yet been made on whether to attach the drought relief to Homeland Security in the House. House conservatives were not trying to stop federal relief spending for weather-related emergencies, she said, but were trying to force the government to pay for this spending by cutting spending elsewhere. “We need to find offsets for this,” she said. “There is almost never a year that goes by that we don’t have a tornado or a hurricane or something. This is the second year we’ve had a drought. If you know you’re going to have an emergency, you budget for it, just like in a family.”

Congress, however, has a big incentive not to budget for emergencies: “Emergency” spending is not counted in the annual budget and thus is not factored into the annual budget deficit–even though, of course, the government must borrow the money to pay for it.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) President Tom Schatz says this has to change. “There should be a regular budgeting process for FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” he said. Congressional leaders have developed a habit, he explained, of attaching extra spending that might fail on the floor to popular bills that many members are afraid to vote against.

“Drought relief should be part of the agriculture bill,” said Schatz. “It has nothing to do with Homeland Security.”

Schatz also questioned whether farmers need another drought-relief package. In 2002, Congress passed “a very generous farm bill, the most generous farm bill in history,” he noted. Schatz said it is still possible that the drought relief will not be classified as emergency spending and thus count toward the deficit.

President Bush requested the $10.2 billion in hurricane relief but not the additional $3.1 billion in drought relief–which even big-spending Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) has questioned. Myrick joined 17 House members in co-signing a September 29 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) drafted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) that called for the drought relief to be removed from Homeland Security. “We believe the Homeland Security bill should be kept clean of spending unrelated to anti-terrorism programs,” the lawmakers said.