It didn’t get a lot of attention late last year when the president’s debt-reduction commission released its recommendations, but recent events have underlined how one specific suggestion makes a lot of sense.

It didn’t get a lot of attention late last year when the president’s debt-reduction commission released its recommendations, but recent events have underlined how one specific suggestion makes a lot of sense.

Can we reasonably expect Congress to get its head around this idea: “Establish a disaster fund to budget honestly for catastrophes.”

Those words are from the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the group that more broadly recommended spending caps, lower but more widely collected taxes, a pay freeze for federal workers (including Congress), a reduction in federal workers, and a gradual increase in the age of eligibility for Social Security.

The group also had some more specific recommendations, such as raising the gas tax and not playing games with that fund to make the deficit appear to be not quite so bad. Disaster spending is another. “Restoring fiscal discipline requires honest budgeting,” the commission writes. “Any given disaster may itself be unpredictable, but the need to pay for some level of disaster relief is not. Yet federal budgets rarely set aside adequate resources in anticipation of such disasters, and instead rely on emergency supplemental funding requests.”

We’re up against that right now. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is close to tapped out. Just since the report came out, the country has had devastating tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa (not to mention lesser ones in St. Louis and Sedalia), an East Coast earthquake that mostly rattled nerves but caused some real damage, and then the floods: Nashville, North Dakota, the Mississippi River, the Missouri River. Those bills are still being tallied.

Then comes a hurricane, Irene, that has affected one-fifth of the nation’s population. It wasn’t as nearly bad as feared, thank goodness, but the damage will run into the billions. FEMA has to help, and that means less for elsewhere – like Joplin. Specifically, the agency is suspending some payments for recovery in Joplin at least until Congress – which doesn’t even go back into session until next week – finds some more money.


A common-sense solution

There has to be a better way. The debt commission suggests this: Take the rolling 10-year average of disaster costs and budget that amount. If a given year is a little light on hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, crippling ice storms and earthquakes, then carry that money forward. We will need it eventually. The commission also suggests tightening the definition of a disaster, saving money.

We don’t know when or where a disaster will strike, but we know it will happen and that people expect their government to step in at least until the emergency passes and recovery is under way. But Congress operates with a different mindset: Who in my state will benefit from program X? Since we cannot know if the next disaster will hit California or Kentucky, budgeting for it feels abstract and there is little constituency for it.

The result is waiting for trouble to come, and then the local congressional delegation spends inordinate amounts of time, after the fact, pushing for its fair share. This is illogical, and it hurts the country. What the commission suggests is simply common sense.