Tag: fema

Defund REAL ID

Lots of other stories have dominated the headlines lately, so people have paid little attention to news that House and Senate leaders have settled on a plan to fund the government for the first half of fiscal 2013 through a continuing resolution.

Senator Reid’s press release states that the agreement “will avoid a government shutdown while funding the government at $1.047 trillion.” If only that were true. The president’s most recent budget estimates that federal outlays will be something more like $3.8 trillion.

Whatever the case on the total figures, this is a good time to be asking just what will be in that six-month extension of government funding. And I’m particularly interested in whether it will continue to fund our national ID law, the REAL ID Act.

Not being a dialed-in appropriations lobbyist, all I have to go on are the proposals for Department of Homeland Security spending that the House and Senate have put together. Those proposals are H.R. 5855, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013, and S. 3216, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013. Both bills spend about $450 per U.S. family on the operations of the DHS.

Poring through the bills and committee reports, I find REAL ID funding in a pot of over $1.7 billion administered by FEMA in its “State Homeland Security Grant Program.” The House Appropriations Committee says the money should be divided among many different programs “according to threat, vulnerability, and consequence, at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security.” Considering what little REAL ID does for security, the Secretary could zero out REAL ID. But this is unlikely to happen.

I find no mention of REAL ID in the Senate bill, though there is a similar pot of money that I assume might fund REAL ID implementation in the states. Precious dollars that local bureaucrats feel utterly obligated to chase after.

With REAL ID funding becoming an also-ran in the world of homeland security grants, its long, slow decline continues. But I have no capacity to calculate the amounts going to REAL ID implementation. That’s nicely hidden in the opacity and arcana of federal government grant-making.

Were I asked what to put in the upcoming continuing resolution, I would simplify things dramatically. I would recommend that REAL ID be stripped from the “State Homeland Security Grant Program.” Zeroed out. Nada. Nothing. In fact, I would add REAL ID to the cluster of Provided’s and Provided further’s that make appropriations bills so hard to read:

Provided further, that no funds shall be used to implement section 204 of the REAL ID Act of 2005 (49 U.S.C. 30301 note).

The country rejects having a national ID. The government is under tight budgetary constraints. The policy that kills two birds with one stone is to entirely defund the national ID law, barring any federal expenditures on its implementation. If Congress can’t see fit to repeal the law, the DHS can issue another blanket extension early next year when a new faux implementation deadline for the national ID law arrives.

Put Federal Flood Insurance Out of Its Misery

The House of Representatives is scheduled this week, as early as today, to consider an extension and “reform” of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the NFIP has been about $18 billion in the hole. And this is from a program that only collects around $2 billion a year in premiums, which barely covers losses and expenses in a normal year. So make no mistake, the NFIP is still on course to cost the taxpayer billions more in the future.

Even before Katrina, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the NFIP was receiving a subsidy of close to a billion dollars a year. Under CBO’s optimistic projections, the House’s reform bill would increase NFIP revenues by about $4 billion over the next ten years, making only a small dent in the program’s current deficit.

The projected cost savings could potentially be lost by the expansion of the NFIP in the House bill. Yes, you read that correctly. Despite being deep in debt, the House is proposing to expand the coverage, and hence the risk, underwritten by the NFIP. For instance, the reform bill adds coverage for living expenses and “business interruption expenses,” as well as increasing the coverage limit from $350,000 (250k for structure and 100k for contents) to about $520,000 per home.

Such a massive expansion of coverage would likely drive out the existing providers of excess flood insurance coverage. And yes, you also read that correctly: there are a handful of insurers that offer private flood insurance. There is absolutely no reason that the private market could not offer flood insurance. Yes, rates might go up for the highest risk properties, but they would likely go down for others (and clearly reduce costs to the taxpayer). And given the high administrative costs of the NFIP (about 30 percent of premiums go directly to private insurance companies to help run it), it is likely that a completely private system of flood insurance would be cheaper.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble and its extreme costs to the taxpayer, we should eliminate the vast array of subsidies for housing construction, including the NFIP. If there’s one thing we should have learned, the underpricing of risk can have disastrous results.

Extinguish Federal Grants to Firefighters

Last week, the House passed a $40.6 billion Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal 2012. The Constitutional Authority Statement for the bill cited Congress’s authority to appropriate money and the General Welfare Clause. Citing the General Welfare Clause might be appropriate for activities associated with the common defense of the nation. However, it is not an appropriate justification for something like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, which distributes federal taxpayer money to local fire departments.

Firefighting is a purely local concern and should be funded by those who benefit from a local fire department’s services. Why in the world am I paying federal taxes in Pennsylvania to a bureaucracy in Washington so that it can turn around and send a check (minus a cut for the bureaucracy) back to my local fire department as well as to thousands of other fire departments across the country?

A look through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program’s current list of grant recipients shows that the small town I currently reside in received almost $750,000 this year. Shouldn’t I be happy? Well, no, because fire departments from Snowflake, AZ, to Dummerston, VT, also received handouts. Okay, but isn’t the federal program helping to make me safer? Well, the website for my local fire department says that it has been “protecting our community for over 150 years.” Hmm, somehow it managed to protect the community for 140 years prior to the AFG program’s creation in 2001.

As for the federal bureaucracy’s cut, FEMA’s website indicates that highlighting “success stories” is an important part of the agency’s job. Not only is there a webpage devoted to success stories, FEMA kindly provides a handy template to make it easier for grant recipients to share their stories. FEMA administrators like photographs, but “action shots” are apparently the key to winning their hearts:

Submitting photographs that help illustrate your story are encouraged and recommended. Action shots showing people who benefited from the success and photographs of the equipment and emergency response effort are highly effective. High resolution photos are desirable. If possible, please submit your photos as an attachment in .jpeg, .gif, .tif or .bmp format. Please provide descriptions for your photographs if possible so reviewers can understand what is occurring in the photograph.

The webpage then lists contact information for 10 different officials who are tasked with receiving submissions from a particular grouping of states. I’d be curious to know how many FEMA officials it takes to screw in a light bulb.

Sadly, 147 House Republicans joined all Democrats to restore $320 million for the firefighter grants during floor deliberation of the Homeland Security bill. Only 87 Republicans were okay with cutting the program’s funding from $800 million to $350 million. It was bad enough that the GOP wanted to give the program a dime. That they justified the expenditure under the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause adds insult to injury.

In a Cato essay on constitutional basics, Roger Pilon explains that the clause was not intended to provide cover for Congress to spend money on whatever it wanted:

[The General Welfare Clause] is followed by a detailed listing or enumeration of activities that Congress is allowed to engage in. Were this passage to be read simply as authorizing Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare, as many read it today, Congress would have been granted all but unlimited power and the enumeration of particular powers immediately thereafter would have been to no purpose. Thus, the passage must be read as permitting taxing only for those enumerated ends; and the clause restricts such funding to the general welfare only, not to the welfare of particular parties.

Remember back in January when the fresh Republican majority in the House made a show of starting the new session of Congress with a reading of the Constitution? It was a nice gesture, but with Republicans voting almost 2 to 1 to restore funding for a parochial grant program, it remains an empty one.