Fact Check: Ted Cruz Is Wrong on Sandy Relief - NBC Chicago
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Fact Check: Ted Cruz Is Wrong on Sandy Relief

The senator is now dealing with hurricane relief efforts in his home state of Texas

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    Footage provided by Elvia Marquez shows the Bob Bowers Civic Center being used to house Harvey evacuees also being affected by floodwater in Port Arthur, Texas. (Published Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017)

    U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz wrongly claimed that a 2013 Hurricane Sandy relief bill was “filled with pork and unrelated spending,” estimating that “two-thirds of what was spent in that bill had little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.”

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose state was heavily affected by Sandy, called that claim “an absolute falsehood” and then accused Cruz of repeating “reprehensible lies.”

    We wouldn’t use the “L” word, but we do find that at least two-thirds of the bill was related to Hurricane Sandy — the opposite of what Cruz said.

    Cruz is now dealing with hurricane relief efforts in his home state of Texas, after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25 as a category 4 storm. In the days since, the storm has dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of Houston. There are at least 30 confirmed or suspected deaths due to the storm, reports the New York Times.

    The Washington Post Fact Checker looked at Cruz’s claim and found little in the Sandy relief bill that could be considered pork-barrel spending, or “local members of Congress spending on their pet projects,” as Cruz also said.

    Cruz’s office later told the Post that the senator was referring to non-emergency spending in the bill, not pork, when he used the two-thirds figure. And a Cruz spokesperson also told us: “When regions face serious disasters causing extensive damage, the federal government has an obligation to assist with assets to address the emergency. Sen. Cruz strongly supports this role of government, but emergency bills should not be used for non-emergency spending and that unfortunately is what made up nearly 70% of the $50.5 billion HR 152 bill.”

    But that’s not what the senator said — in two TV interviews. Several readers have asked us to assess whether the Sandy relief bill largely had little or nothing to do with the storm, some citing Cruz as the reason for their question.

    The Texas senator was asked about his previous opposition to a disaster relief bill for Sandy, a storm that made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, in late October 2012.

    Cruz, NBC News, Aug. 28: I and a number of others enthusiastically and emphatically supported hurricane relief for Sandy. Hurricane relief and disaster relief has been a vital federal role for a long, long time and it should continue. The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.

    Cruz, CNN, Aug. 28: Now, there were a number of us who were concerned that that particular bill became a $50 billion bill filled with pork and unrelated spending that wasn’t hurricane relief. It was simply local members of Congress spending on their pet projects. And two-thirds of what was spent in that bill had little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.

    We consulted a detailed report on the funding in the legislation by the Congressional Research Service in February 2013. We found that at least $35 billion of the $50.5 billion provided by the bill was related to Sandy — that’s 69 percent of the bill.

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    (Published Monday, Aug. 28, 2017)

    We identified nearly another $10 billion that was for mitigation efforts to limit damage from future storms. That left nearly $6 billion uncategorized, because it was either unclear whether all of the funds were specifically directed to Sandy-affected areas, or the money indeed went to other disaster efforts.

    We realize there are judgment calls to be made in this exercise, but we followed the CRS report’s descriptions of the purposes of the funding. Several items we left uncategorized are described as being “for necessary expenses related to the consequences of Hurricane Sandy” in the legislation, such as salaries and expenses for government agencies. But our calculation ended up being similar to a big-picture estimate from Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

    Ellis, whose group criticized the bill at the time for some of the funding items, estimated for FactCheck.org that about $30 billion of the $50 billion was Sandy-related, or about 60 percent of the bill. His estimate was based on some of the major elements of the bill, not the entire bill.

    While Cruz claimed the bulk of the legislation had little, or nothing, to do with Sandy, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, also of Texas, went too far in the other direction. He said this about a Hurricane Harvey relief bill on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Aug. 30: “I hope that it will be a clean bill that only affects disaster-related things, as the Superstorm Sandy bill did back then.”

    That’s misleading. One could make the argument that nearly all of the Sandy bill included “disaster-related-things,” but not Sandy-related. Just as one could make the argument that there were non-emergency items in the bill.

    Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that publishes an annual “pig book” on pork-barrel spending, supported the general idea that there was non-emergency spending in the Sandy relief legislation.

    “It is hard to state definitively how much of the Sandy relief appropriation was either non-emergency or unrelated to the storm, but every emergency supplemental spending bill has contained such expenditures,” CAGW President Tom Schatz said in a statement to FactCheck.org. “Beyond the political wrangling over the definition of ‘storm-related’ needs, the funding bill for Sandy had weak and under-funded taxpayer safeguards. Even if a project had some relationship to the storm, there was no way of verifying whether those dollars were spent effectively or in a time-sensitive fashion. However, there is ample documentation of Sen. Cruz’s general assertion: Emergency spending bills are filled with unrelated spending due to its must-pass nature.”

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    Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013

    Let’s take a closer look at what was in the Sandy relief bill.

    “Superstorm Sandy,” as it was called, affected the East Coast in late October 2012. The storm “caused flooding and wind damage in 24 states across the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States,” with New Jersey and New York “the most severely damaged,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a report a year later. In the Northeast and mid-Atlantic U.S., the storm was responsible for 72 deaths.

    The Senate passed, by voice vote, an increase of $9.7 billion for FEMA’s borrowing authoring for the National Flood Insurance program, and that bill was signed into law in early January 2013.

    Separate legislation, called the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, included $50.5 billion in funding and was signed into law on Jan. 29, 2013. Thirty-six senators — all Republican — voted against the bill, including Cruz.

    A Feb. 19, 2013, Congressional Research Service report goes through the various funding items in the legislation, calling it “a package of disaster assistance largely focused on responding to Hurricane Sandy.”

    There were many categories of spending, including funds for government relief and assistance programs, health and social services, and repair to damaged facilities. The largest line items among the $50.5 billion included, according to the CRS report: $11.5 billion to FEMA’s disaster relief fund; $16 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s community development fund; $10.9 billion to the Department of Transportation’s public transportation emergency relief program; $3.5 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers for construction, another $1 billion for flood control and coastal emergencies, and $821 million for operations and maintenance related to Sandy; and $779 million for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program.

    All of that adds up to 88 percent of the bill, and we counted most of it as being Sandy-related.

    About half of that $10.9 billion to DOT ($5.383 billion) could have been transferred by the transportation secretary to projects to “reduce the risk or damage from future disasters in the areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy,” CRS said. So, we put that in our “mitigation” category, leaving the rest in the Sandy-related category. (DOT said the program was for the 12 states that were declared disaster areas for Sandy.)

    Readers can judge for themselves whether they think mitigation efforts for future storms in Sandy-affected areas should still count as Sandy-related. We left those items in the separate “mitigation” category. For example, the legislation provided funding for studies on ways to reduce storm damage and coastal flood risk in Sandy-affected areas ($50 million). It also required that $600 million in environmental grants be used entirely on projects designed “to reduce flood damage risk and vulnerability” or boost resiliency to natural disasters for wastewater and water treatment facilities affected by Sandy.

    We divided funding that went to the Army Corps of Engineers, based on CRS’ explanation of the various categories. For example, the Obama administration had requested $3.83 billion for Corps construction, $9 million to repair existing projects and the rest for “mitigation” funding to limit damage from future storms. The law as passed provided the $9 million, which we considered Sandy-related, and $3.46 billion total for construction, the rest of which we considered mitigation funding.

    The biggest single pot of money that Cruz, and others, have criticized is the $16 billion to HUD, which was for the agency’s Community Development Block Grants for “the most impacted and distressed areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other eligible disaster events occurring during calendar years 2011, 2012, and 2013,” CRS explains. So some of the money could be used for other disasters, even those that hadn’t yet occurred in 2013.

    Watchdog groups Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense bothfaulted the Sandy appropriations bill for including wasteful or non-emergency spending that could have been subject to the normal budgeting process instead — and both pointed to the HUD Community Development Block Grant funding as problematic.

    TCS said that 47 states plus Puerto Rico would be eligible for funding. HUD provides a breakdown of where these funds have been allocated, and it shows $13 billion going to the Sandy-affected areas of New York, New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland, with 98 percent of that going to the first three locations.

    Therefore, we counted $13 billion as Sandy-related, with the remaining $3 billion non-Sandy-related. We’ll note that this breakdown wasn’t known when senators voted on the bill, and we haven’t assessed the nature of all of the grants for the Sandy-affected areas. The law stipulated that HUD must allocate a third of the Community Development Block Grant disaster funding within 60 days of the bill’s enactment.

    A total of $326 million was appropriated for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, much of the funding for mitigation or improvement efforts for weather and hurricane forecasting. We divided these amounts between Sandy-related ($71 million) and mitigation ($252 million), again based on CRS’ descriptions. We included all of a $44.5 million fund to repair and upgrade hurricane reconnaissance aircraft as mitigation funding, though some likely was for Sandy-related repairs.

    As we said, there are judgment calls to be made in attempting to classify the many spending items in the bill, and we invite readers to come to their own conclusions about how relevant or necessary they may find the spending to be.

    The budget watchdog groups certainly criticized the relief bill at the time.

    Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote in January 2013 that the legislation “isn’t riddled with ‘pork’ per se, in fact in many ways it’s better than what the Senate passed last year. But far too much of it is not emergency and should be done in the context of the regular budget process. We cannot afford to fund our prevention, protection, and resiliency in slip-shod occasional emergency spending bills.”

    TSC highlighted other lower-dollar amounts in the legislation, including: $118 million for Amtrak ($32 million, though, was for repairs due to the hurricane, with $86 million “for recovery and resiliency projects in the affected area,” CRS said); $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses; $5.37 million for the Army to repair Sandy-damaged facilities (TSC suggested the Army could come up with the money as easily as “rummag[ing] through the couch cushions”); and $2 million to the Smithsonian Institution (which turned out to be for roof leaks caused by Sandy, according to a Smithsonian spokeswoman).

    TSC’s Ellis told us in an email that as far as “emergency” funding, “[i]t really depends on how you think about emergency. Two years after Sandy only a fraction of the money had been spent. We would like to see a more deliberative approach to disaster rather than strike while the iron is hot and fork out all the cash at once. … Even if the total funding level is approved all at once, but then subject to triggers or justification we will get a better result.”

    “Also, some of this funding shouldn’t be dubbed emergency simply because it was Sandy-related,” he added, citing improvements to Department of Defense facilities that he says “could easily be absorbed” in the regular budget.

    Cruz could have said he thought the Sandy relief legislation included too many non-emergency items. That’s fair enough, and his opinion. But he was wrong to specifically say two-thirds of the bill “had nothing to do with Sandy,” or “little or nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy.”