ON TUESDAY, the House approved another $50 billion for expenses related to Hurricane Sandy. Assuming the Senate signs on, that would bring the total federal lawmakers have authorized for Sandy relief to about $60 billion, and that might not be the last of it.
Americans have all sorts of reasons to be shocked.
They should be shocked at the scale of the storm’s damage, of which this is another reminder. It’s not clear how much human-induced global warming contributed to last year’s superstorm. But seas are rising, and higher seas mean higher surges during big storms. As climate change continues, natural disasters will almost certainly become more common, more severe or both.
We should also be shocked at how much the federal government might spend. Congress just got through a nasty battle over the Bush tax cuts, and the result of that acrimonious debate was about $60 billion annually in new revenue. Now lawmakers are proposing to spend $60 billion outside the normal budget process and, barring a last-minute change, without sacrificing elsewhere to finance it. Despite intemperate howls from Northeastern lawmakers, the House was right to take some time to examine the package and to scrub from it some of the more egregious spending provisions in the Senate version.
Finally, Americans should be shocked that lawmakers still haven’t reformed the slapdash way Congress deals with disasters. The claim that those future big storms have on federal funds is potentially massive — $10 to $25 billion in a normal year and $80 to $170 billion in a bad one, according to a 2010 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research that, with the help of the New York Federal Reserve and The Post’s Brad Plumer, has been circulating recently. Though costs are hard to predict, Congress should at least budget disaster-assistance money upfront to the greatest extent possible and through the normal appropriations process, where the spending trade-offs are clearer and lawmakers don’t have to legislate under the duress of emergency.
Increasingly, too, Congress has been investing in infrastructure upgrades as part of disaster relief, under the compelling logic that spending some money to prepare now will head off much higher costs later. Lawmakers have considered doing the same in the Sandy recovery effort. That worthy goal, though, deserves the rational structure of a long-term plan that assesses how much the country can afford to protect and determines where to invest, instead of being tacked here and there to disaster-relief bills. Among other things, a coherent strategy would discourage Americans from building in vulnerable areas the government is unlikely to protect.
Congress is set to be consumed with unrelated budget battles over the next year. But lawmakers’ decisions about disaster relief significantly affect lives, property and the federal balance sheet. They can’t pass the Sandy package and forget about it.