This vote was on an amendment by Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to award grants from its predisaster mitigation fund through competitive bidding, and without regard to any congressionally-directed spending. This program gives grants to states and cities for hazard mitigation planning to implement mitigation projects prior to a disaster. The amendment was offered to the bill that funds the Homeland Security Department in fiscal 2010.
Feingold said his amendment is intended to force Congress to stop the practice of earmarking (where members direct money specifically to certain projects in their states or districts without regard to the normal funding processes), and instead allow funds for this program to be distributed based on need and risk.
“We would like to be able to compete for these dollars in an open and fair manner through a program that has been designated for that purpose on the merits, not because somebody happened to sit on a particular committee or was able to get an earmark. Whether it is a threat to human lives in New York or Montana, if these Senators are confident they can make the case, they should make the case on the merits,” Feingold said. “I remind everybody, the President has suggested that this program should not even continue unless we can get to merit-based consideration because that is the whole idea behind it. When the lives of American people are threatened by disasters and terrorist threats, our decisions should have something to do with the comparative needs and risks to the American people, not whether somebody is able to get an earmark.”
Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is in charge of one of the Appropriations subcommittees, said she is opposed to the amendment because it would force some emergency operations centers, which received their funding through a congressionally-directed earmark, to shut down.
“I have listened to the Senator make some very persuasive arguments. I remind all of us that what we are providing is accountability and visibility for where those dollars are going. It is not being done in some bureaucracy where we cannot see it. It is laid out in this bill, and we have heard the arguments of many Senators here on why those funds are being appropriated to where they are. So I urge opposition to the amendment,” Murray said.
By a vote of 38-60 the amendment was rejected. Of Republicans present, 25 voted for the amendment and 15 voted against it. Of Democrats present, 12 voted for the amendment and 44 voted against it (including the most progressive members). The end result is that the measure went forward without language that would have eliminated congressional earmarks for pre-disaster mitigation grants and instead required FEMA to award them through a competitive bidding process.