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July 05, 2023 | In The News

Efforts to refill FEMA disaster fund face competing priorities

Roll Call – Some House lawmakers who represent hurricane-prone districts want an emergency spending bill to ensure the government does not run out of money in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, joining a small but growing Senate effort.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., a former Florida emergency management director dubbed the “Master of Disaster” during the COVID-19 pandemic, introduced legislation last week that would provide $11.5 billion in supplemental funding for the disaster relief fund. Del. James C. Moylan, R-Guam, has also signed on.

Moskowitz said in a statement that Congress needs to be proactive in addressing the upcoming shortage in the disaster relief fund.

“FEMA provides life-saving resources to areas impacted by disasters all around the nation,” he said. “Emergency management cannot be politicized and should always be prioritized.”

Moskowitz represents a coastal district running from Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton. Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to his prior role, where he took a more active approach to pandemic mitigation than his boss did. Moskowitz eventually left his post in February 2021.

Moskowitz won the redrawn seat vacated by former Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., last year by 5 points, in a district President Joe Biden won by 13 points two years earlier.

The legislation mirrors a Senate bill introduced by three Republican senators from hurricane-prone states — Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as Mississippi’s Roger Wicker— last month that would provide the same amount, $11.5 billion. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has since signed on to the legislation.

However, political dynamics following the caps in the debt limit law could imperil the chances of swift passage of an emergency supplemental. Specifically, lawmakers in both parties are expected to eye any moving spending bill as an opportunity to fund their priorities, from Ukraine military assistance to aid for migrants crossing the southern border.

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., who represents a southwestern Florida district, said in a statement that he supports a clean disaster supplemental “without progressive pork and free from any language that is not directly related to disaster relief efforts.”

“While there has been significant progress made to provide relief from Florida’s last hurricane season, it is clear that more assistance is needed before the next storm strikes,” Steube said.

FEMA’s most recent estimate shows the agency is expected to run out of money in August and run up a $10 billion deficit by the end of September.

While FEMA could get a nearly $20 billion cash infusion in a typical “anomaly” in stopgap funding legislation that lawmakers would need to pass by Sept. 30, that may be too late with hurricane season approaching.

Homeland Security Appropriations Chairman David Joyce, R-Ohio, said FEMA currently has enough to deal with severe weather, although he could not predict if conditions this year would necessitate a supplemental.

“Those are things you just can’t really truly estimate,” he said. “I’m not sure where we stand on that going forward. Obviously, we pray the weather patterns are good for us.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Congress typically comes together to give FEMA the money it needs to respond to disasters. He said he thought the House would be able to pass a disaster relief supplemental if one is needed.

“Normally, outside the process, a lot of people understand in a situation like that you’ve got to help folks,” he said.

House Democratic appropriators acknowledge the fund likely needs to be refilled, but they couldn’t predict if the House would act on a stand-alone supplemental.

“They do need some money,” said Homeland Security Appropriations ranking member Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. “Whether we can get it done is something that will have to be agreed on in the supplemental itself.”

Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she hadn’t seen a request for a disaster relief supplemental yet from the administration, but she anticipates one.

“I would hope, let’s take a look at what the disasters are, and what are our needs we have to meet,” DeLauro said. “Why would you fly in the face of disaster assistance? But this crowd is capable of anything.”

FEMA chief Deanne Criswell told House appropriators in April that she expected the administration to request a supplemental, but none has been forthcoming. A panel of the House Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing with Criswell on July 13.

While senators of both parties have expressed support for a disaster relief supplemental, there is also significant concern that any moving funding bill would be attractive for a variety of other priorities.

“I think there’s a lot of different people who have a lot of different ideas for a supplemental,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “Generally, we find a way to come together around disaster supplementals, but certainly if there is something moving, people will have different ideas of what should go on it.”

Specifically, a GOP aide said last month that senators seeking defense spending above the cap in the debt limit deal would likely see a disaster supplemental as a way to secure that money.