Tag: firefighting

Dumping Money on Fire

A bill before Congress would practically give the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting. HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposes to allow the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster relief funds whenever its annual firefighting appropriation runs out of money. It’s not quite a blank check as the bill would limit the Forest Service to $2.9 billion in firefighting expenses per year, but that’s not much of a limit (yet), as the most it has ever spent was in 2006 when it spent $1.501 billion.

The Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them.

Having a blank check is nothing new for the Forest Service. In 1908, Congress literally gave the agency a blank check for fire suppression, promising to refund all fire suppression costs at the end of each year. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that a democratically elected legislature gave a bureaucracy a blank check to do anything: even in wartime, the Defense Department had to live within a budget.

Due to rising firefighting costs, Congress repealed the Forest Service’s blank check in about 1978, giving the agency a fixed amount each year and telling it to save money in the wet years to spend in the dry years. The agency actually reduced its costs for about a decade, but then two severe fire years in 1987 and 1988 led the Forest Service to borrow heavily from its reforestation fund. Congress eventually reimbursed this fund, and costs have been growing ever since.

In the 1970s, when firefighting costs were so out of control that Congress repealed the blank check, the agency spent about 10 to 20 percent of its national forest management funds on fire. Today, even though the agency’s budget has kept up with inflation, more than half goes for fire.

Yet there is some restraint on what the agency spends. In severe fire years, it has to borrow money from its other programs, putting a crimp in those activities. Congress eventually reimburses that money, but in the meantime fire managers are aware that their spending is having an impact on other agency projects.

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.