Buying Votes with Disaster Relief: Critics Say the Clinton Administration Has Rewritten the Rules to More Than Double the Opportunities to Dole out Federal Funds under His Presidential Emergency Powers. (Reporter's Notebook)

Article excerpt

A barely noticed tug-of-war over disaster aid featuring two powerful senators opposing an ambitious Cabinet secretary provides a peephole for following one of the most underreported gambits of the Clinton era: the politics of funding federal disaster relief. According to a report in the Washington Times, Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond, a Missouri Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, put Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, Secretary Andrew Cuomo on notice in late March that they were seeking transfer of disaster-relief monies under his control to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Bond is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on VA-HUD and Independent Agencies, and Mikulski is the ranking Democrat. In question was more than $300 million in emergency disaster-relief funds that Cuomo had been free to dispense under HUD's Community Development Block Grant Program. The money was designated as aid to victims who live in places declared by the president to be disaster areas, but insiders told the Times that Bond and Mikulski feared Cuomo planned to pass the bucks around recklessly "in political favor-type projects."

If Cuomo were to do that, he would be following what critics say is a pattern in the Clinton administration -- hardly original as a political gambit but certainly more in evidence under Clinton. (In his first year in office he set a new high mark in declaring 58 disasters, and he went on to set record after record.)

The senators notified Cuomo by letter of pending "supplemental" legislation giving FEMA sole responsibility for "identifying unmet disaster needs and for determining the appropriate allocation and award of these funds...." In other words, they were putting Cuomo out of the disaster-aid business. A copy of the letter -- Hill watchers deemed it somewhat unusual due to Democrat Mikulski's participation -- was provided to Insight.

Bond's part in attempting to cut Cuomo down to size, a task perceived by many Washington ego-inspectors as Herculean, traces to an ongoing feud. During Bond's bid for reelection last year, Cuomo went to St. Louis to charge that the senator planned to block a $1.8 billion HUD program that included money for Missouri. Though Bond had not yet determined his stand on the program, Cuomo's foray resulted in a counteroffensive, with Bond asking in the press, "Are they into politics or housing?"

Quizzed by Insight, Bond's press secretary, Dan Hubbard, declines to characterize the letter to Cuomo as a tactical move in a political battle. It is, indeed, a very formal document which would require an interpretive reading by those hoping to find diatribe or innuendo. Hubbard also suggests that Mikulski's signature on the document took it out of politics and "added a little bit of weight to it." Certainly it did raise a few eyebrows to see Mikulski, a street fighter and Democratic loyalist from blue-collar Baltimore, joining in a move to pluck one of the jewels from celebrity-status Cabinet member Cuomo's inherited crown.

Mikulski, a strong supporter of FEMA's role in coordinating federal disaster-aid programs -- and representing a state that has benefited nicely from FEMA's programs -- wasn't joining in Bond's perceived vendetta. If that appeared to be the case as presented in the Times article, Mikulski's press secretary, Johanna Ramos-Boyer, tells Insight, "It probably resulted from a little bit of license on the part of the Washington Times. It's their interpretation." And what would be the more acceptable spin, Mikulski-wise? "The committee felt that FEMA was better equipped to get the funds to the communities that need it in a fair and expeditious manner," Ramos-Boyer explains.

Cuomo, off hobnobbing in South Africa on a mission described as "meetings with government and business officials ... to discuss ways the two nations can work together to meet common housing and community-development challenges," could not be reached for comment. …