FEMA funding dispute quickly spins into campaign issue

Will the Federal Emergency Management Agency lose $900 million in funding in just a few months as it tries to cope with Hurricane Sandy? It’s possible, and some bloggers are pointing fingers at the president and Congress for the situation.

Cuts to FEMA are part of the sequestration process that many Americans hear about daily and don’t really understand.

The Washington Post has a relatively clear explanation of the issue. FEMA has about $14 billion to coordinate national disaster relief efforts, and it could lose $900 million of that next year because of the requirements of the sequestering program.

The sequestration is a set of automatic budget cuts triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The Democrats and Republicans have been arguing about the program, which will automatically put stark budget cuts in place unless Congress and the White House can reach a deal after the election.

PolitiFact.com has a detailed explanation of the sequester and some recent campaign claims.

PolitiFact says the idea of the budget cuts originated in the Obama administration as a starting point for congressional negotiations in 2011 over the national debt limit.

Congress then approved the Budget Act with the sequester as an option, if a select “super committee” couldn’t find an alternative. That committee couldn’t agree on a compromise, so now the sequester cuts loom over Congress and either President Obama or Mitt Romney.

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At least half of the steep budget cuts will be to defense programs, which makes it a real hot-button issue. The FEMA aspects didn’t get a lot of publicity until Hurricane Sandy became an item.

Conservative bloggers at Brietbart.com were pointing the FEMA finger at Obama on Monday, claiming the sequester idea was his idea to begin with and the $900 million in FEMA cuts were earmarked by the White House.

“It is precisely Obama’s reckless spending and mismanagement that has placed FEMA in the budget-cutting crosshairs,” said Joel Pollak.

Media Matters for America, a liberal website, had its counterargument ready.

“This is absolutely false: the report they characterize as the White House’s ‘sequester proposal’ is actually a legally required estimate of how scheduled automatic budget cuts will impact discretionary spending, and inveighs strongly against allowing those cuts to take effect,” says Simon Maloy.

The Washington Post points out that a large natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy could force the sides to compromise.

“Even in the advent of an unprecedented disaster, Congress would have to pass new legislation to bypass these funding limits for disaster relief after a certain point. And recent natural disasters have already shown what a political mess that can be,” it says.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said on Monday that his agency already has $3.6 billion in its budget to deal with Hurricane Sandy.

“We have the funds to respond, we have the funds to continue to respond,” Fugate said. “We see no limiting factors for response activities.”

Some of that money will help local authorities deal with potential damages to polling places.

For now, the Obama and Romney teams have put campaign appearances on hold until Hurricane Sandy dissipates.

But the Romney camp was fielding questions about statements he made in the primary season about federal budget cuts, including disaster relief.

A Romney spokeswoman said the candidate has never implied he would cut FEMA from the federal budget, but he wants state governments to direct federal resources when it comes to response efforts.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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