Is the Federal Government Really Robbing Disaster Funds to Pay for Detention Centers?

Government

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, right, Oregon, on a recent visit to the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore, USAF)

I can say a few things with absolute certainty. Ted Williams is the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. There are two kinds of people: those who like pineapple on their pizza and those who don’t. And Congressmen and Senators will bank on the fact that their constituents understand neither the sheer magnitude of federal spending nor the bureaucratic morass that surrounds spending those funds.

The last point was on display in Washington today, as Hurricane Florence has the mid-Atlantic states in a frenzy.

when it comes to the budget, nothing is as exciting as it seems

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said when he was a White House chief of staff, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In that vein, while coastal residents of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina were evacuating their homes ahead of a monster storm, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) was taking shots at President Donald Trump. He did his best to make the situation look as bad as he could. But as is usually the case in Washington, especially when it comes to the budget, the details are far more mundane than the headline suggests.

Appearing on MSNBC Tuesday night, Merkley announced that the Department of Homeland Security had taken $9.8 Million away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and given it to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).

Merkley seized on a valid point. But to get attention for his point, he invoked a completely silly argument that undermined the whole thing. In its efforts to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border, the Trump administration needed an additional $220 Million for ICE. The issue of detention and its attendant family separation are sore spots for the administration though, so it couldn’t just ask Congress for more money in a supplemental appropriation. So it “reprogrammed” the money.

But Merkley, in his eagerness to score points against Trump in the fight over immigration policy, tried to frame the issue around disaster relief. He’s wildly off the mark.

Yes, The government did “Reprogram” some of Fema’s funding

Reprogramming is a standard government accounting trick where an agency takes money that Congress appropriated for one purpose, and redirects it to a different purpose. While this may seem on the surface to be defying the legislative branch’s “power of the purse,” Congress actually builds this ability into appropriation acts. It is used across every federal agency every fiscal year. Things change, priorities shift. Congress understands that it cannot foresee every possibility, and allows a certain amount of flexibility in the way agencies use their appropriated dollars.

But Merkley had to make a splash and try to frame the issue around the government’s perceived inability to respond to a natural disaster like the one Mother Nature appears to have in store for the Carolina coast.

FEMA’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2018 was $18.4 Billion. The final Consolidated Appropriations Act gave it $12.5 Billion. I’m certain that if I spent the time to go through the language of the continuing resolutions that funded the government between October 1, 2017 and the final budget enactment in March of 2018, the final FEMA budget would be roughly equal to what the administration asked for.

But this Doesn’t Mean FEMA will be unable to help victims of hurricane Florence

But we have to hear, as a hurricane bears down on the East Coast, that DHS redirected $9.8 Million of FEMA’s budget to ICE. This is fear-mongering at its worst.

First off, $9.8 Million is about 5.3 % of the total amount FEMA requested for FY 2018. To give you an idea of the chump change this is, imagine you had $18.40 in your pocket and came across a panhandler. This transfer is the equivalent of giving the panhandler a dime. You won’t miss it, and neither will FEMA.

There is a legitimate news story in the fact that detaining and returning illegal immigrants has cost the government $220 Million more than it anticipated. There are a number of potential reasons for this, most of which point back at the Trump administration. By all means, let’s have a discussion about how ICE handles illegal immigrants it is waiting to return to their home countries. The policy has real consequences and merits a legitimate policy discussion.

But when you try to start the conversation by charging the administration with endangering American lives to pay for detainee camps, then the conversation is really going nowhere. Merkley’s charge is begging not to be taken seriously. He insinuates that FEMA will be ill-equipped to respond to Florence because the government siphoned-off cash to pay for detention camps. This is nonsense.

When I agree with an umpire’s close call that goes against my home team, my wife will ask, “Whose side are you on?” My answer is always the same. “The truth,” I tell her. The same thing applies here. The administration’s border policy might be ill-advised. Homeland Security might have done a poor job at forecasting their true requirements. But neither of those will prevent FEMA from delivering the goods and services the  people sitting in Florence’s path need.

So lets stop pretending that $9.8 Million is anything more than the proverbial fart in a hurricane.

If you live in an evacuation zone, get out. Take care of yourself and don’t pay attention to the category 5 storm over Capitol Hill.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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