Congress is on vacation and FEMA is running out of money

Just because Congress is on recess, natural disasters don't stop. Now FEMA is running out of money, thanks in part to the fire in Maui. Just add it to the pile ...

Just because Congress is on recess, natural disasters don’t stop. Now FEMA is running out of money, thanks in part to the fire in Maui. Just add it to the pile of Hill urgent issues. For the latest,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin Tell us more about the FEMA situation. They need money. It can only come from Congress. So what’s the situation there, Mitchell?

Mitchell Miller Right. Well, this was even before the disaster on the island of Maui that the FEMA Director Deanne Criswell was telling Congress that FEMA could run out of money. And this was earlier in the summer and that was before Maui happened, before the heavy storms in Southern California. And who knows what’s going to happen throughout the hurricane season. So this is a situation that she has been sending up the flare on. And really, Congress has to come up with some money to do this. The president has proposed $12 billion in disaster aid and we’ll see where that goes. Even before that was proposed, Florida Senator Marco Rubio had site disaster aid in a separate measure. But it does seem like it’s going to have to be folded into some larger legislation. But you look at the type of situation that FEMA has been dealing with in the last decade or so. Criswell told Congress earlier this summer that FEMA in 2010 had about 100 declared disasters to support. Now, more than a decade later, that number has tripled. So they’re dealing with natural disasters almost throughout the entire year, whereas before they kind of knew that certain months were going to be heavier. And then obviously the hurricane season is huge. So I think there will be support, as there always is for disaster aid within Congress. But they’re going to have to move around a lot of funding. FEMA does have a little bit more flexibility than a lot of federal agencies have. So we’ll have to see what happens in the coming weeks when lawmakers get back.

Tom Temin Yeah, So basically, they’re dealing with almost an average of a disaster a day.

Mitchell Miller Yeah. And they’re huge. Well, let’s not forget that it was just a year ago that in Florida that disaster with the hurricane caused more than $100 billion in damage. And while the damage has been extensive from the wildfires in Maui, that is dwarfed by what happened just a year ago. And then, as you mentioned, they’re just rolling disasters, one right after the other. And it really has changed for FEMA in how they respond to everything because they’re dealing with something all the time.

Tom Temin Yeah. And meanwhile, as we sit here, it’s still another week until Labor Day. But they’re not back until well after Labor Day.

Mitchell Miller Right. And everything is just growing in terms of all these to do things that the lawmakers have to get to. I mean, before they left, they still had 12 appropriation bills to get through. Now, they did get them through all the committees in the House and the Senate, but the House only passed one bill. So even before they broke for the summer, there was a tentative agreement that we’ve learned about recently that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer essentially said to each other, look, we know that there’s just not going to be enough time with the House not even getting back until the 12th, much less the 5th when the Senate gets back. So they are looking at another continuing resolution, some type of stopgap spending bill. But as you would expect, a lot of members of the House Freedom Caucus and conservatives are saying that they don’t want this kind of agreement. And some of them are even saying that they don’t have a problem with possibly going to a shutdown. So we’ll see what happens in regard to that. But it is very possible still that we could have at least a short government shutdown next month if they can’t get an agreement within the House.

Tom Temin And over the years, we’ve seen that when there is a, I hate to call it a shutdown because the FAA, air traffic controllers keep working, law enforcement keeps working. They shut the parks because that inflicts pain on the public. I think it’s kind of a political statement when they do that. Our dear late friend Mike Causey used to call that “close the Washington Monument” syndrome. But the fact is that a lot of the essential government operations don’t cease. And so it’s mostly what the public does not see: people planning budgets, people planning new policies and regulations that stops.

Mitchell Miller Yeah. And I think if we do get a CR passed eventually, if there is some type of partial government shutdown, I don’t think it would be that long. They would probably get a CR that would go into early December. They want to avoid that big omnibus at the end of the year because don’t forget, if they fail to pass a budget by the end of December this year, then when the new year starts, the new calendar year starts, the automatic 1% spending cuts will go into effect at the start of 2024.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And somehow the shutdown, and the CR and the general lurching nature of the way Congress manages the government seems to tie in with the idea of retention of the federal workforce because they get tired of this kind of thing, because they’re trying to do their jobs and the people that enable it aren’t doing their jobs. And this came up in the IRS context.

Mitchell Miller Right. And this is especially significant when you consider that the IRS is going to need to hire more than 25,000 non-IT employees this fiscal year alone. So they are trying to really ramp up the hiring and the retention at the IRS, as a lot of other agencies are also dealing with the aging out of federal workers. And the IRS really got dinged by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration in a recent report. They found basically that the IRS wasn’t using enough of its incentives to recruit, retain, relocate employees, and their findings were pretty substantial in that they found that only 1,400 employees during a period between 2019 and fiscal 2022 actually received some kind of incentives. Now, these all totaled about $1.5 million, but it’s really kind of a drop in the bucket when you look at all the number of people that the IRS has to deal with. And a lot of the money, frankly, went to people during the COVID 19 pandemic when they were just trying to get IRS employees back into the office. Again, this is a continuing challenge, as you know, with the federal government trying to retain federal workers, get younger workers into the federal government.

Tom Temin Yeah. And they’re also trying to get retirees back into the IRS. And this is something you see agencies do. Not just the IRS, but often because they have the expertise that’s needed. Must be strange coming back after retiring and after being away. Otherwise, during the pandemic, I guess you’d go into your office and say, I wonder if that piece of gum is still in the same bottom of the same table that was there before.

Mitchell Miller Bringing back that institutional knowledge. But yeah, it is a kind of a strange topsy turvy world for a lot of federal workers when you do come back from retirement.

Tom Temin And now that we’ve seen not unexpectedly, but the dramatic savagery in the way that Vladimir Putin has seemingly dispatched Prigozhin there over there and that plane shootdown, has that changed anyone’s thinking — I guess because they’re not in session, it’s hard to tell — on the balking for funding of Ukraine, which could also complicate the budget process?

Mitchell Miller I think it does have an effect. I mean, there’s no question that everyone pretty much on the Hill, except for the sharpest critics of funding for Ukraine, know that Putin, this is the type of thing that he does. He basically kills his opponents. And it may have taken a while, but he saw that uprising a few months ago. And clearly some type of action here has been taken. And it’s interesting that right as that happened, there was actually a bipartisan group of senators visiting with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, an interesting trio of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, very different politically. And then Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has worked with Senator Graham on a variety of issues. But this shows that there are people that are really serious about getting Ukraine more funding. The president has requested a total of $24 billion, and more than half of that would be specific to military assistance. I think you’re going to continue to see that tug of war between the far right in the House. A lot of people very critical of sending money to Ukraine and the more institutional interests, if you will, in the Senate, as well as more moderates in the House. And I think that they will eventually come up with more money with Ukraine. We’ll just have to see whether or not it’s going to be folded again into this big stopgap measure or if it can somehow be separated in a separate measure, which I think is probably unlikely.

Tom Temin Well, one thing at least we know there’s one less SOB in Russia, but we still have the big one in place. So…

Mitchell Miller That’s right. A lot of people forget that Prigozhin was actually mentioned in connection with the impeachment proceedings going way back to Ukraine and the meddling of Russians in the U.S. election that involved, allegedly, Prigozhin. And he was technically a fugitive in connection with an investigation here in the U.S..

Tom Temin Yeah, it’s like one big mafia over there in some ways. And listen, I wanted to ask you, too, that you had a discussion with someone who is often in the background, but not always, and that is the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, and he’s celebrating 20 years on the job now.

Mitchell Miller That’s right, 20 consecutive years in the job. And he is such an interesting and wonderful person to speak with. I was lucky enough to speak with him up in his office complex, which, by the way, has a portal that looks out onto the National Mall. It’s one of the most beautiful views from the U.S. Capitol, and I’ve been told that that is the only portal window that will actually open to the mall. So that’s kind of an interesting thing. But as far as the Reverend Barry Black, he is interesting in so many ways. He has at times gotten attention for some of the prayers that he’s had at the outset of the Senate. Of course, he comes in every morning and does that. Many years ago, it was when he was decrying the madness of a government shutdown. And he said, I asked him, how do you decide when to change up your prayer? And he said, in the instance of earlier this year when there was a fatal shooting at the Nashville Church school, he said he was literally listening to WTOP, did not know about it, and in a moment’s notice, he changed his prayer entirely. And that’s when he made a very attention-getting prayer, talking about essentially that prayers were not enough. The thoughts and prayers were not enough in an instance like this. And he says he kind of gets a signal. He calls it a text message from a higher power that he knows that he has to change things.

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