Vote Notes: H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017
Milton Friedman once observed that if you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there would be a shortage of sand.
His simple point was that by its very nature, our government was not designed for efficiency.
Each of the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers installed to prevent the centralization of power, and the absolute power that comes with it, creates inefficiencies. You have this construct combined with human nature and the more casual observance that many people have on things that they don’t own or control versus the things that they do. There are a lot of truths represented in what Friedman was getting at.
This brings me to H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, a bill that passed the House last Wednesday by a vote of 232 to 188. I voted no and wanted to touch on two of my concerns….
One, it makes our federal budget hole bigger - not smaller. At one level, the bill represented a step forward for the Forest Service itself. But when you and I think about our federal tax bill, we don’t just look at the Forest Service budget, we look at the whole bill. We don’t care if you add to the left pocket, if you’re taking an equal amount out of the right pocket. This was the case with this bill. In the bill, the president would be able to declare a wildfire as a national emergency and direct FEMA to give emergency money to the affected areas of the country. This again represented a win for the Forest Service and put it on equal footing in the way that we treat hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The problem here lies in the funding component of what would take place. FEMA’s emergency fund has been running perpetually dry. Just last month, Congress voted twice to provide supplemental appropriations to disaster-struck areas to the tune of $26.1 billion because the fund was out of money. So, a remedy that doesn’t address the larger funding riddle of adding to the one pocket while then concurrently needing to take out of the other pocket is hardly a remedy that helps the taxpayer.
To be clear, fires ultimately should be treated as other natural disasters. But we have to come up with some sort of remedy that addresses the larger funding problem, and this bill did not do that.
The other problem with this bill was that it totally ignored the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011’s limits on discretionary spending. Simply put, this means that Congress would be handing over a blank check for fire-fighting activities on federal lands. Under current law, there is a limit on disaster spending, which is based on the average funding provided for disaster relief over the last ten years. The bill here would ask for a recalculation of that number to include wildfire spending, which would end up increasing overall spending by a completely unknown amount. Blank checks don’t work.