As Hurricane Irma bears-down on Florida, while Texas still reels from Harvey, ideologues on both sides of the disaster relief debate are digging-in. Democrats, as always, seek to exploit a crisis to get more government spending, less deficit reductions, and more pet projects paid. On the other extreme, some act as if federal disaster relief is a grave violation of the Constitution that has James Madison rolling-over in his grave. Neither of these positions are rational.
Federal disaster aide is not unconstitutional, but it should also not be a hobby horse for more fiscal recklessness in other areas. The Constitution does not expressly authorize Federal disaster relief through agencies like FEMA; it does not expressly forbid it, either. The Constitutional clause generally cited to provide for disaster relief is Article I, Section 8, Clause 3. The Interstate Commerce Clause is generally interpreted as allowing for disaster relief because, in the absence of such relief from natural disasters, interstate commerce is impeded. That is a legitimate perspective, but the idea should not be taken to the extreme.
Federal disaster relief under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 should be limited in scope and duration. Helping devastated Texans recover from Harvey, or ravaged Floridians from Irma, is good and proper. We cannot let some of America’s largest cities in two of our largest states lie in ruins. To do so would impede interstate commerce and the overall prosperity of the American economy. We must also, however, not allow other favor spending to be attached to disaster relief aide.
Congress and the President should pass emergency relief as a “clean” bill that does not include debt ceiling increases or other funding measures. For this reason, I am proud that four members my state of South Carolina’s congressional delegation voted against the bad deal Donald Trump made with Nancy Pelosi. As reported in The State newspaper, “four of the Palmetto State’s seven Republicans on Capitol Hill voted against $15.25 billion for relief efforts.” They did not vote against relief; they voted against all of the riders attached to it. All of these members supported a “clean” disaster funding bill pushed by House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier this week.
Disaster relief is not unconstitutional, but using it to expand Obamacare funding, borrow more against the income of future generations, and to scrap the budgetary process is not only unconstitutional, but irresponsible.