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CONTRARIAN QUESTIONS ABOUT POST-QUAKE AID : Help the Victims, but Make Cuts Elsewhere : With a $4-trillion deficit, Congress has to stop going off-budget for disaster relief.

January 31, 1994|JIM NUSSLE | Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is part of a bipartisan push to require spending cuts to offset federal disaster relief.

Congress should act quickly to provide money to help the Los Angeles earthquake victims, but funding that relief should not burden future generations with red ink.

Nothing better exemplifies how the federal government got itself so deep in debt than the way it pays for disaster relief. When disaster strikes, the red ink flows freely. Congress suspends regular budget rules and unconscionably spends tax money off-budget when paying for disasters via special emergency appropriations.

With the rules suspended, members of Congress often turn emergency supplemental bills into vehicles to pay for favorite projects unrelated to the disaster. Of the last 22 emergency supplemental appropriations bills passed by Congress, 18 ended up using more money than even the President requested.

If paid today, the $4.4-trillion federal debt would cost every American alive $17,000; the Congressional Budget Office says the deficit will be $5 trillion at the end of President Clinton's four-year term. One-fifth of your tax dollars go to deficit spending. More than $200 billion a year, 14% of the federal budget, goes to pay interest on the debt--the third largest expense after Social Security and defense.

That's why last summer, when Congress was considering $2.5 billion for the flood-damaged Midwest, where my family and I live, I urged my colleagues to behave responsibly. I, along with 23 of the 52 members of the California delegation, suggested that Congress provide disaster assistance to flood victims by using corresponding spending cuts. We lost on a procedural maneuver. But my message still is, let's help everyone who's been hurt by the flood and earthquake, but let's not assume we don't have to pay the bill.

Congress, like every family affected by the earthquake or flood, should be expected to reorder its priorities. For me, two of the top priorities for Congress must be helping the earthquake victims and stemming the flow of red ink in Washington. With disaster aid for the earthquake victims near the top of everyone's federal-spending list, we should avoid letting natural disasters compound our growing fiscal disaster. We should cut low-priority and unnecessary spending from the federal budget to pay for earthquake relief.

That's a sensible solution to two serious problems.

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