Guest column: Rokita - Out of Sandy's tragedy, a chance for a change in Washington

Jan 11, 2013 Issues: Spending Cuts and Debt

From the Lafayette Jounral & Courier -

Guest column: Rokita - Out of Sandy's tragedy, a chance for a change in Washington

Paying for cleanup should be attitude check in Washington

Earlier this week, J&C columnist Dave Bangert criticized my decision to oppose legislation to provide funding for hurricane relief in the Northeast. He implied that I was hypocritical for supporting previous disaster relief in Indiana while seemingly opposing it in last week’s bill. While I share Dave’s and everyone’s compassion for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, I must disagree with his analysis of the situation, my record and my vote.

As a member of the House Budget Committee, I work each year to pass a budget (or a continuing resolution when the Senate refuses to do its job) that funds every part of our government, including money set aside for emergencies. This work forces Congress to prioritize what it spends the people’s money on, assuming, as we should, that there is a finite amount of money to spend. Some things are a higher priority and get assigned more money, and some things are a lesser priority and get less. These things all get debated and argued about, but in the end, we make a decision showing the hierarchy of priorities, and this is reflected in each year’s budget or continuing resolution.

When Indiana was hit by flooding and tornadoes in 2011 and 2012, I asked the federal government to tap some of that already budgeted — and therefore already prioritized — emergency funding to pay for relief. They did, and Hoosiers were better for it. But that fund ran dry before Hurricane Sandy ever hit land.

Does that mean we shouldn’t help our fellow Americans? Of course not. What it means is that we must make room in our national budget for the new situation by reducing spending on what would now be less important priorities — just like we did with the budget and continuing resolutions before the fund ran dry, and just like every family would do in times of emergency. This is far from hypocrisy. It’s the opposite of it.

Unfortunately, last week’s bill did nothing to prioritize spending in light of Sandy, and so I reluctantly voted against it and would do so again under the same circumstances.

Before voting, I asked the same question to myself that I ask before most all votes: Will this be better for the children of tomorrow? If they have to pay for this borrowed spending because those who want it refuse to pay for it with cuts elsewhere, the obvious answer is “no.”

Rather than adding to our debt with new off-budget disaster spending, we should make cuts that equal these additional expenses. There is no shortage of wasteful spending that Congress could cut. For example: an estimated $4.5 billion in improper or illegal food stamp payments by the Department of Agriculture and $3.2 billion in college tax credits doled out by the IRS to prisoners and other ineligible applicants. By simply eliminating improper payments in programs like Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, we could save more than $100 billion per year — enough to pay for Sandy relief and other disasters that might come.

Others might come up with different cuts, and that’s fine, too. But no one, including me, was able to even offer them because no amendments or debate were allowed — another reason I voted against the bill.

I also indicated that the next time a similar tragedy comes our way, where it’s appropriate for Indiana to ask for legislative assistance, I plan to offer legislation containing spending cuts in areas that should be less of a priority than the federal disaster spending we’re requesting. And you can be sure that I will argue and fight for these cuts, because I know that Hoosiers don’t expect to pass the costs along to our children when things get tough.

Beyond the immediate cuts, the solution to this problem of repeatedly exceeding our budget for disaster spending is to reform our emergency funding programs to set aside enough money to actually pay for the emergencies that we can reasonably expect will happen — perhaps by mirroring historical averages.

We in Indiana have an opportunity to show leadership and to change the attitude in Washington and across the country. It’s not immoral or hypocritical to insist that we prioritize our spending and cut back when we’re faced with emergencies — in fact, it’s just Hoosier common sense. But it is immoral and hypocritical to make people who don’t yet exist pay for our expenses, whatever the cause of them.

U.S. Rep. Rokita represents Indiana’s 4th District, which includes the Lafayette area.