Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill

Mr. President, on behalf of Chairman Inouye, today I would like to introduce an emergency supplemental and disaster aid bill that will help respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. 

The eyes, ears, and hopes of tens of millions of our fellow Americans who were in this storm’s path are now trained upon the United States Senate.  And with us in this effort, as well, is the good will of the entire Nation.

When ‘Superstorm’ Sandy hit the East Coast seven weeks ago, it had swelled to become the largest Atlantic hurricane in history, over a thousand miles wide.  Its reach was greater than even that of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.  Sandy claimed the lives of more than 120 Americans, and destroyed more than 340,000 homes and 200,000 businesses.  More than 8.5 million families were without power in 15 states and the District of Columbia.  The scale of the damage is almost hard to fathom.  Having seen the damage caused by Irene last year, including the devastation from which my home state of Vermont is still recovering, I am acutely aware of the need for a rapid and unified response from Federal, state, and local authorities to meet the needs of so many of our citizens.

As of last week, the Homeland Security Subcommittee reports that the Federal Government has already provided over $2.7 billion in relief through FEMA, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies.  As of today, 12 states have active major disaster or emergency declarations as a result of Sandy, and there is no question that it will cost billions to rebuild these devastated communities.  The Obama administration has requested $60.4 billion for recovery and repairs, and the amendment we consider today meets that request.  But we have not simply rubber-stamped the request.  The Appropriations Committee, working with Senators from all the states that have been hit so hard, has made numerous changes to ensure that the dollars put into this response are used as effectively and efficiently as can be.  We know the budget constraints we are facing; the Committee has done its best to allocate the funds in such a way that States will have the flexibility required to respond to the individual needs of their citizens, while at the same time reducing the possibility for waste, fraud, or abuse.

Senator Landrieu, the chair for the Homeland Security Subcommittee, is no stranger to tackling the incredible challenges of responding to and recovering from natural disasters on this scale.  Louisiana is still rebuilding from the catastrophes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Senator Landrieu has worked tirelessly ever since to help her state and others recovering from storms and other calamities.  I appreciate all she did to help us in Vermont when we were in a similar situation last year.  In this supplemental, she has worked to incorporate that experience into vital emergency funding for FEMA and other disaster relief programs.

Since the supplemental we consider today contains funding that will help millions of Americans recover from this terrible storm, I want to highlight a few of the specific funding recommendations.

The supplemental includes $10.8 billion in emergency relief for public transportation systems.  We all understand that public transportation is necessary for millions of Americans to function day-to-day, and it is especially vital around New York City.  The subway and bus systems in New York and New Jersey allow people to get to work, and children to get to school.  The resources in this supplemental will help pay for the repair and restoration of some of the most heavily used public transportation systems in the country.  And, just as important, it will also fund projects to help public transportation prepare for and resist future storms.

The supplemental recommends $812 million for the Small Business Administration.  Small businesses are essential to the American economy, and they are responsible for employing about half of all workers in America.  This amount will help fund the SBA’s disaster loan program, which helps small, local businesses in recovering from physical damage to their storefront operations, as well as in recovering from economic losses suffered when they had to close their doors during Hurricane Sandy.  We have all seen the devastation to iconic neighborhoods and places like the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and Long Island.  So many of the businesses destroyed in these communities are mom-and-pop operations, and they simply cannot afford to reopen without Federal disaster assistance.  They need these loans, and they need them now, not six months from now.  That is especially true for those shops that make their living during the summer beach season.  They need loans today so they can open by Memorial Day.

We also recommend $500 million for the Administration for Children and Families, Social Services Block Grant.  This amount will primarily be used for child care services, for reopening damaged child care facilities, and for mental health services for both children and adults.  Another $100 million will pay for repairs to Head Start facilities affected by Hurricane Sandy.  We all know Head Start provides essential education and health services to low-income, pre-kindergarten children.  And we all know that interruptions in programs like these are detrimental to the development of the children and families they serve.  Again, we cannot wait to rebuild these centers nor can we wait to provide essential health care services to those who have lost so much.

I have heard two arguments against moving an emergency supplemental as quickly as possible. The first is that the costs of this bill should be offset with cuts to other programs.  This is the same argument we heard last year when we needed emergency funding to respond to Hurricane Irene.  It made no sense a year ago, and it makes no sense today.  The suggestion that we should cut funding from base budgets of departments and agencies that are carrying out the essential functions of our government in order to pay for an unanticipated natural disaster is absurd.  Mandating offsets means cutting funding from law enforcement to pay for replacing a vital roadway destroyed by Sandy.  It means cutting funding for education through Head Start in order to provide clean drinking water to those who have been left with nothing in the wake of Sandy.  The point is obvious.  We have not, and we should not, use spending offsets for true emergencies. 

Chairman Inouye has often said, and I quote, “It has long been the tradition of the Congress to approve disaster assistance without need for offset.”  He continued:  “Others will likely come to the Senate floor to challenge that remark…However, in the case of disaster assistance, I challenge my colleagues to review all Appropriations bills for the past decade and find a single instance where the Committee paid for disasters by rescinding funds from other programs.”  Chairman Inouye concluded:  “No one would find an example, because quite simply there aren’t any.”

Of course, Chairman Inouye is right.  The President requested and the Committee is recommending $60.4 billion to respond to this storm.  The total budget authority for non-defense spending is about $500 billion this year.  Using the logic that all emergency spending should be offset with cuts to discretionary spending means, if we see just seven more disasters we will completely eliminate spending for every Federal department and agency, except the Pentagon.  Some in the Tea Party might think that sounds like a good idea, but the rest of America disagrees. 

I have also heard discussion that we should take a down-payment approach to this supplemental.  Do a little and come back next year for the heavy lifting.  It sounds familiar because I remember hearing it a lot last year.  But it remains a terrible idea not to help the people struggling now to recover from this devastating storm.  We are asking homeowners to rebuild.  We are asking business to reinvest.  They need the assurance that the rebuilding efforts will be adequately supported.  It is wrong to say to those who have lost their homes or their businesses – or both! – “put your money up now, and maybe, just maybe, the Federal Government will come through six months from now.”  That is not how we want to encourage rebuilding.  Homeowners and businesses in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and elsewhere need to know that the funding will be there to complete the rebuilding of public infrastructure.  Only the Federal Government has the resources to make this happen.  The President’s request is comprehensive, and we know that it is needed to recover from ‘Superstorm’ Sandy.  Congress has responded to these disasters in the past; it should do so now.

When Irene – then a tropical storm – hit Vermont last year, no one could have anticipated the devastation we saw.  Roads washed away, bridges collapsed, single routes to communities demolished.  Vermonters know that when one of us is hurting, all of us are hurting.  Vermont appreciated the assistance from other states, near and far, and from the Federal Government.  New Jersey, New York, and other states hit by this superstorm are now depending on us.  Let’s do the right thing.  There is no need for delay.  Christmas is coming, and thousands of families have lost everything.  Their hope and their futures are in our hands.  They need our help.  They deserve our help.  Let’s get this done.

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