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Coburn’s Right: Disaster Relief Bills Often a Fiasco for Taxpayers


Senator Tom Coburn’s announcement last night that he would seek to offset any funds sent to Oklahoma for disaster relief has generated  him plenty of heat.

MSNBC’s Steve Benen noted Coburn’s position was consistent, but added that “it doesn’t change the questions about unnecessary callousness.” At America Blog, John Aravosis writes, “In the face of a major tornado disaster in his home state, that has taken the lives of over 90 Oklahomans, including at least 24 children in a devastated elementary school, Coburn says he won’t support disaster relief for his home state unless the budget is cut elsewhere,” and then adds, “Yes, Coburn is taking his own constituents hostage as budget-cutting human shields.”

(Glad we’re all on the same page about assuming the best motivations from our ideological opponents.)

What Coburn critics are missing is that, perhaps precisely because of the emotional effect disasters have, relief bills tend to be laden with spending that doesn’t have sufficient oversight or that is completely unrelated to the disaster.  In December, Coburn objected to the $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy bill that was being rushed through, telling CNN that “this is a stimulus bill, not an emergency bill.” According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis, two-thirds of the funds allocated weren’t to be spent until fiscal year 2015.

Furthermore, ABC News’ Jon Karl reported in December that the Sandy package included “some surprising items” such as “$2 million to repair roof damage at Smithsonian buildings in Washington that pre-dates the storm” and “$4 million to repair sand berms and dunes at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.” It’s very easy for disaster relief packages to become pork-laden.

But how many Americans were aware of the bill’s delayed spending or non-Sandy-related projects? Casual news observers may well have assumed that fiscal conservatives were blocking funds needed right now for the Sandy victims they had seen suffering while watching TV news footage.

It’s also possible for disaster relief to be distributed with little or no accountability. A March report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General found that $940.5 million had been given to Louisiana homeowners (who received an average of about $29,000 apiece) to elevate their homes so as to be better prepared should flooding occur again, as it had during Hurricane Katrina. (Coburn’s office highlighted the report’s findings.) There was one condition: If three years passed, and home owners weren’t in compliance, they had to return the money.

Well, three years later, a whopping 15 percent of home owners who had received the money had raised their homes.

Fifty-three percent weren’t in compliance and 30 percent couldn’t be bothered to let the government know one way or another.  But don’t think taxpayers were getting their dollars back: As of March, a mere $200,000 had been recouped from homeowners who weren’t in compliance.

Admittedly, Coburn’s position is that even if the bill avoids pork, spending far in the future, and lack of accountability, it should still be offset by cuts elsewhere.  But there’s no reason that can’t be done – and that for once, a disaster relief bill be done in a way that smartly targets those who need help from the disaster, and not just throw around taxpayer money for the heck of it. 


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