Members of Congress who constantly have to treat people equally under the law are asking a federal agency to fix an unequal safety net program for communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has denied an Illinois request for public assistance stemming from the storms that caused widespread damage and killed eight people on Nov. 17. Assessment teams last year estimated the damage was about $6 million, and the threshold for Illinois is nearly $18 million.
The point is that Illinois has a different threshold than other states. States with large, urban centers and high populations must show a higher level of damage than states with lower populations.
FEMA administrators argue that the varying "per capita" damage factor is needed to direct funds to the places most in need of help. Their reasoning is that a lower population state has less tax money coming in and has fewer funding options than high population states.
FEMA usually still provides emergency assistance to individuals and to businesses in disaster areas. What's at stake is public assistance: Funds to assist communities with repairs to roads, bridges, public buildings and some forms of clean-up work.
U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk of Illinois want to see FEMA treat all states the same.
"We urge you to fix the unfair valuation that takes place when the agency evaluates federal disaster assistance requests in which far too much emphasis is placed on the ‘per capita' factor. This disfavors geographically large states with a large, populous urban center, such as Illinois," Kirk and Durbin wrote in a letter to FEMA.
This is not the first time the lawmakers have complained about unequal treatment. FEMA also denied public assistance -- as well as individual assistance -- after tornadoes hit two Southern Illinois communities in 2012.
"We introduced legislation in the last session of Congress ... in the wake of deadly tornadoes in Harrisburg and Ridgway, Illinois. That bill would direct FEMA to create a level playing field for all states in times of disaster. We urge you to ensure some states do not get preferential treatment in the federal disaster assistance analysis."
It's easy to see both arguments.
FEMA does not have the funding to handle full funding of every disaster, so its rules put the same sort of financial means test on states that welfare programs put on families. Those with greater financial resources get less, or no, assistance.
From the senators' view, the issue is fairness. They feel FEMA should treat everyone equally.
Congress itself is an example of both these arguments.
The U.S. House is designed to give every state a voice based on population. States with higher populations get a proportionally higher number of House members.
However, the U.S. Senate gives each state two members, equalizing the power of each state.
FEMA may well have to make adjustments if Congress ever passes the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act that was introduced by Kirk and Durbin. If those changes are required, Congress also will need to make changes, boosting federal emergency funds so that FEMA has the wherewithal to offer more assistance.