In asking for $3.7 billion from Congress yesterday to combat the border crisis, President Obama attached another request that has nothing to do with illegal immigration.

The president wants $615 million to fight wildfires.

Acting on similar bipartisan proposals in Congress, Obama also requested a change that he says would treat spending to fight wildfires like budget responses to other natural disasters.

The change would create another exception within the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed in 2011 to address concerns about the nation’s debt ceiling by establishing caps on how much money the lawmakers can appropriate.

Under the statute, when unpredictable events such as Hurricane Sandy are destructive enough to be declared disasters by the president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to exceed its annual budget and draw on a special disaster account.

The account is adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.

Obama’s proposal, and similar bipartisan plans in Congress, would authorize a new adjustment to the budget cap for “wildfire suppression activities” — that is, responding to and putting out wildfires.

The proposals have divided Republicans, pitting fiscal hawks against western lawmakers who want to respond to the threat of hotter, longer fire seasons in their districts.

The proposals — including the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act introduced last December by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Michael Crapo, R-Idaho. — already have stalled in both chambers of Congress.

The Wyden-Crapo bill has 15 co-sponsors, including two Republicans. A companion House bill by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has 99 co-sponsors, including 50 Republicans.

‘Yet Another Escape Hatch’

Staff members for a prominent Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, where members include Wyden and Crapo,  are working to build  opposition to the proposals.

Republican aides on the committee distributed an internal memo to Capitol Hill staffers analyzing the Wyden-Crapo plan. The memo, obtained by The Daily Signal, says that if the bill were enacted “there is a strong likelihood of an adjustment in the BCA [Budget Control Act] caps in any given fiscal year.”

If that were to happen, the memo suggests, it could precipitate unnecessary spending elsewhere — and anywhere.

“It could create room below the BCA caps for additional appropriations for non-defense, non-wildfire suppression operations,” the memo concludes.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has objected publicly to such a plan, which he said circumvents budget caps. Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert told The Daily Signal today:

House Republicans have made progress on the deficit, and now the president is trying to undo it. He wants to use an escape hatch in our spending caps to pay for his mistakes on immigration. And he’s trying to carve out yet another escape hatch to pay for wildfires. We have to hold the president accountable; otherwise we will lose many of our hard-won gains.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offers an alternative for rounding up funds to  fight wildfires. (Photo: Academy of Economic Studies of Moldova/Creative Commons)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offers an alternative for rounding up funds to fight wildfires. (Photo: Academy of Economic Studies of Moldova/Creative Commons)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., planned to introduce an alternative bill today that would authorize some exceptions to the budget cap for wildfire spending. But under McCain’s proposal, that would occur only if federal agencies invest in forest-thinning projects, a preventative measure that he says will reduce firefighting costs over time.

Brian Rodgers, McCain’s communications director, said:

Senator McCain agrees Congress must address wildfire funding shortages, but the Wyden bill [and Obama’s plan] falls short. All it would really do is give the U.S. Forest Service a ‘blank check’ to fight fires, but it does nothing to lower the cost of wildfires in future years. Americans’ tax dollars should be used effectively and efficiently – to fight fires today while bringing down the costs of future fires by investing in forest-treatment projects.

‘No Justifiable Reason to Increase the Deficit’

Romina Boccia, The Heritage Foundation’s Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs, told The Daily Signal that she understands why funds to fight wildfires became a priority, but questions Obama’s request for additional money to do so:

There is no justifiable reason for Congress to increase the deficit and debt when lawmakers have a $492 billion bloated budget at their disposal for 2015, which they already inflated by more than $9 billion from its original level under the Budget Control Act.

Proponents of busting the spending cap say the current process resulted in underfunding “wildfire suppression” needs.

In recent years, the Department of Interior and the Forest Service (under the Department of Agriculture), the two agencies responsible for wildfire response, had to transfer money from fire prevention and land restoration accounts to pay the bills for fighting the largest 1 percent of fires — which represent nearly 30 percent of all firefighting costs.

The agencies base their wildfire budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years, a process that Wyden and Crapo argue underestimated the actual costs in eight of the past 10 years and forced the Forest Service and Interior officials to “steal” money from other programs to pay for the difference.

When actual costs exceed firefighting budgets, the Forest Service has to engage in what’s known as “fire transfer.” They move funds to fight wildfires out of non-fire programs, including forest management activities that treat areas affected by insects and disease — and so reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires.

‘Not a Good Way to Do Business’

The Forest Service projected it will spend about $1.5 billion fighting wildfires this fiscal year, and the Department of Interior estimated it will spend $296 million.

“With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, adding:

Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research, and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.

Brent Keith, policy director of the National Association of State Foresters, a non-profit comprised of the directors of state forestry agencies, argues that the current funding model is inefficient.

In the early 1990s, Keith said in an interview with The Daily Signal, the Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression. Today it’s 40 percent. Keith said:

Transfers upend everything the agencies are doing. It’s not a good way to do business. It makes it hard to serve the long-term goals that not only the public expects, but Congress expects.

‘Fires Cost What They Cost’

The White House proposal and similar plans in Congress seek to move the costs of fighting that largest 1 percent of fires to FEMA’s disaster relief account.

Any firefighting spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average would go into the disaster fund, but the cap could not exceed $2.7 billion.

The Congressional Budget Office, in reviewing the Wyden-Crapo plan and the companion proposal in the House, concluded that the bills would not increase the budget.

Keith Chu, press secretary for Wyden, said that whatever firefighting money comes out of the disaster fund, it will not upset long-term deficit-reduction goals set in the Budget Control Act.

“I have heard that argument. But fires cost what they cost to fight,” Chu said, adding:

It’s not like anyone is proposing we don’t fight fires. The current system is an accounting trick. Let’s stop pretending we’re not spending the money and account for it in a more straight-forward manner.