Budgeting, first and foremost, is about establishing priorities. Prioritization - a central tenet of any sound financial plan - derives from an understanding that resources are not infinite. Unfortunately, many in Washington can’t seem to grasp that fact, a situation that has become all too clear in the recent battles over deficit spending.
The misunderstanding has come to a head recently over disaster-related spending. House Majority Leader (R-VA) has been vocal in his position that any supplemental spending to address a string of national disasters that have recently swept across the U.S. be “offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere” in the budget. Liberals have bristled at the idea, spouting off well-worn talking points about conservatives are putting concerns over the deficit ahead of the tragedy of communities ravaged by natural disaster.
Such extreme talk is fundamentally misconstruing Rep. Cantor’s position.
“Of course when something like this happens, there is an appropriate federal role,” Cantor has said. “Surely we can find the money to meet our priorities.”
Aiding victims of natural disasters is surely a priority, a position echoed by White House spokesman Tim Carney in his response to Cantor. “The principle [is] that when we’re having a natural disaster and an emergency situation . . . our priority has to be responding to the disaster and helping those regions and states recover,” Carney said.
Establishing a system of priorities, a necessity if we are to successfully escape our enormous deficits, doesn’t work if everything remains at the top of the list. As Republican Study Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) said recently, “I would be happy to join Eric or any other colleague to find other areas in the budget were we can cut lower-priority spending to offset the additional emergency spending that is needed today.”
Of course this whole political scrum could be avoided if Washington realistically budgeted for emergencies. Every year the Federal Emergency Management Agency receives money to help alleviate the damage caused by weather-related disasters. And every year the amount is inadequate to deal with the inevitable emergencies that spring up.
But pretending as if there will be no natural disasters only causes taxpayers more pain. When problems do spring up FEMA’s coffers get low, the politics get tough, and the President requests emergency supplemental funding that adds to our already unsustainable deficit.
America can no longer afford such make-believe. Our fiscal woes demand that Washington actually take steps to plan ahead and budget for natural disasters. If only we would plan ahead, and budget accordingly, we could avoid the political back-and-forth and get down to helping those in need.
Providing relief to victims of natural disasters and spending taxpayer money responsively are not mutually exclusive concepts. Resolving the two simply takes an ability to prioritize coupled with a realistic eye toward the future.