Congress’s inaction on Hurricane Sandy relief, up until this weekend at least, has succeeded in maintaining the sense of urgency to arrange relief efforts that began as soon as people knew the storm was coming. A $60 billion relief package has finally cleared the Senate, but debate over what the package should have looked like has not. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is one senator keeping that debate going; expect him to turn his failed amendment into its own legislation as soon as it’s convenient.
The amendment would have required competitive bidding for new disaster recovery contracts, which did not happen for Sandy relief, plus reviews and re-competitions of all existing no-bid contracts. In the amendment text, Coburn cites waste from similar no-bid contracts after Katrina, including $11 billion in improper spending and 1,700 indictments for stealing and abusing funds, according to Inspectors General of various agencies. He also cites the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) record of non-compliance with current rules.
The amendment required a supermajority to pass and only managed a 48-47 vote. My less cynical side tells me most of the opposition was along the lines of that of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said bidding during disasters wasn’t “appropriate” and would end up costing more, presumably in the paperwork involved in the actual bidding process. And then my more cynical side wonders whose market share those 47 senators are trying to protect.
In response to Schumer, Coburn pointed out that disaster contracts are often pre-negotiated, allowing equipment and supplies to flow as soon as they can be used. Unfortunately, his amendment text says nothing about the timing of a competitive bidding process. In cases of natural disasters that can be predicted – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods – the amendment might have benefitted from text requiring the process to be streamlined to a few days, tops, before it hits. With that improvement, this amendment should have passed.
Those who suffer during and after disasters are still taxpayers. They would benefit from a bidding process that ensured, at least from the federal government, the most relief for the least money and bureaucracy. They deserve a contractor who has an incentive to provide it. That’s considerably worse for them than any delay created by bidding. If they’re going to lose along with the rest of the country if we go over the cliff, they might as well get this much consolation.
Unlike another Republican, Coburn isn’t talking about privatizing the entire disaster relief system, as some who hear the word “competition” automatically assume. (See also: Manitoba Hydro.) Compared to the kind of changes he could have proposed, this one is plain common sense.