The federal government’s approach to emergency relief has long been to open its checkbook and pay whatever it took to get communities back on their feet. Agencies had budgets for disaster response, but nature defied prediction; overruns were the rule, not the exception.
After Hurricane Irene flooded large swaths of the Northeast, however, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., declared that the era of the open checkbook was over. Instead of borrowing from the future to pay for repairs, Cantor said, Congress must offset any new relief spending with cuts in other programs. He’s right that Washington needs a better approach to disaster relief, but that’s not it.
Events such as Irene or the earthquake that rattled the Eastern seaboard prompt conflicting responses. As a nation, we feel a duty to help our compatriots who fall victim to natural forces beyond their control. But a federal backstop of that sort creates a moral hazard, enabling people to take — and local governments to tolerate — risks that they couldn’t afford if they knew there would be no federal aid forthcoming. Agencies try to reduce that hazard by offering aid only to individuals and communities that meet certain standards, such as carrying flood insurance in flood zones. But those steps haven’t prevented costly losses, particularly to major public facilities such as roads, sewers and schools.
Washington needs to do more to encourage people and local governments to mitigate risks and insure themselves against nature’s wrath. The more progress they make on that front, the less help they’ll need from the federal government.
Los Angeles Times (Aug. 30)