The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Friday on the first $9 billion of a $60 billion aid package aimed at mending the Sandy-battered Northeast, with a decision about the rest of the money promised for January 15. The legislation has already passed the Senate, amid criticism from some Republicans that the bill contains excess spending not directly related to Sandy.
So what exactly is in this aid package, and how much oversight does the federal government have over how it’s spent?
Much of the bill simply designates funds to various federal departments without specifying what they must be used for, aside from “expenses resulting from a major disaster.” The legislation does however, specify a handful of explicit projects, like $207 million set aside to repair the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manhattan, which was damaged by Sandy.
The largest portion of the package is a $17 billion infusion into the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Fund, which is traditionally used to fund grants for low-income areas. The funding would go directly to state and larger city governments — the legislation specifies that HUD allocate at least a third of the money within the first two months after it’s passed — and can’t be used for projects eligible for funding from FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers. It stresses that at least 50 percent of the money should be used to benefit low- and moderate-income individuals, while also granting the HUD Secretary the ability to reduce or eliminate that requirement if he finds a “compelling need.”
Before receiving the funds, state and cities must submit plans for the money and receive approval from HUD, detailing how they will address “long-term recovery and restoration of infrastructure and housing and economic revitalization in the most impacted and distressed areas,” according to the legislation.
Generally, federal Community Development Block Grants go to projects that help low-income individuals, get rid of slums or blight, or address development needs that pose a community health or welfare threat.
Congress frequently uses the Community Development Fund as a means of distributing money for emergency needs because it allows for spending on range of different locally designated projects, according to Chris Walker, director of research for the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, which helps community-based organizations secure grants and other assistance to transform struggling neighborhoods. This particular chunk of cash would be about three or four times the annual amount usually in the fund, he noted.
“It’s a huge amount of money,” he said.
Under the bill, at least $2 billion of the community development allocation would have to be used on efforts to mitigate or reduce future risks from events like Sandy.
The legislation also sets aside $10.78 billion for the Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program, half of which can be used solely for mitigation efforts aimed at preventing damage to infrastructure like New York’s subway system from future storms.
The bill includes $5.35 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, the majority of that going toward construction projects aimed at repairing damage from areas hit by Sandy — or Hurricane Isaac earlier in 2012 — and reducing future flood risks. A little more than $1 billion would be set aside to help prepare for future natural disasters and emergency operations. The legislation also designates millions to investigation of possible adaptations to curb damage from floods and storms, repair of Army Corps projects damaged by natural disasters, and increased oversight of future emergency response. Under the bill, the Army Corps would have to submit monthly reports on the progress of these efforts.
Republican Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn have taken issue with the Army Corps funding, saying there is “no statement of priorities of how to spend the money.” They have also highlighted a number of smaller items in the legislation as examples of “wasteful spending,” like $2 million to repair museum roofs in Washington D.C. and $50 million in subsidies to plant trees on private property.