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In today’s GOP, even disaster relief has become controversial

Is a disaster-aid vote the right time to reform federal programs?

Santa Rosa, California, was devastated by the Tubbs Fire earlier this month.
REUTERS/Stephen Lam

In the past two months, the United States has been besieged by an almost biblical succession of natural disasters: a series of three powerful hurricanes devastated areas of Texas and Florida, and seemingly the entire island of Puerto Rico, while wildfires tore through tens of thousands of acres of northern California.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, their homes destroyed or severely damaged; beyond that, many people — particularly in Puerto Rico — continue to lack access to basic things like clean water, electricity, and medical care.

These disasters require money — for cleanup, supplies, and more — and that requires Congress to move swiftly to appropriate emergency funding, an obligation it has fulfilled for decades, and largely without incident.

In an era of mounting federal debt, however, there is no longer wide-reaching agreement in the Capitol about the best way to approach disaster relief. Since early September, Congress has voted to approve more than $60 billion in aid for victims of the recent hurricanes and wildfires, but some measures have attracted significant opposition.

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A bill passed last week, which approved $36.5 billion in assistance for the victims of the recent disasters, illustrates the point. By any measure, the legislation was approved by a wide margin, with 353 Democrats and Republicans voting in favor.

Sixty-nine lawmakers, though — all Republicans — voted against it, and among those nos were two Minnesota Republicans, Reps. Jason Lewis and Tom Emmer. In statements, the two conservatives acknowledged the need to help victims of natural disaster, but argued that the legislation presented before Congress was fiscally irresponsible.

They argued that even much-needed disaster legislation needs to be accompanied by measures that mitigate any potential impact on the federal government’s $20 trillion in debt. Can Congress realistically pass spending cuts and reform federal programs while it appropriates disaster relief money, or is this yet another example of political grandstanding in Washington?

As deficits mount, a changing approach in the GOP

Historically, disaster relief has not been a particularly charged political topic in Congress. That was the case as recently as a decade ago: Four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Senate quickly approved $10.5 billion in disaster relief funds.

By Sept. 7, both chambers had passed a $50 billion package to provide aid to victims of the monster storm. The measure passed the Republican-controlled House by a margin of 410 to 11. The House later approved a bill to raise the borrowing authority of the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, which pays out claims to people grappling with extensive damage to their homes after flooding events like Katrina. That passed the lower chamber, 416 to 0.

This noncontroversial climate surrounding disaster relief began to change around 2011, according to Mark Harkins, a fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and an expert on Congress. That year, the new Republican majority — stocked with a large freshman class of tea-partying conservatives — took control of the House, bringing with it deep concerns about the mounting federal debt.

In 2011, the federal government was roughly $14.7 trillion in debt — 96 percent of the national gross domestic product — and had posted a $1.6 trillion deficit the prior fiscal year.

“There was a fundamental shift in the way Congress dealt with these spending bills,” Harkins says. “After that time, the will of Congress seemed to be, hey, these are disasters, but we are really concerned about the budget… We don’t want to add to the debt, it’s huge.”

The new fiscal hawks were confronted with their first opportunity to exercise some post-disaster restraint in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the fall 2012 storm that hit New York and New Jersey, and other parts of the Northeast with intense wind, rain, and flooding. A preliminary bill passed on Jan. 4, which provided relief for Sandy victims by increasing the borrowing authority of the NFIP by $10 billion. Instead of garnering unanimous support, as the Katrina measure did, 67 Republicans voted against the bill. (It ultimately passed both chambers of Congress.)

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Congress then took up a bill that would have provided $50 billion in assistance to those affected by Sandy. While Republicans from the Northeast advocated strongly for it, other Republicans claimed that as much as two-thirds of the bill’s funds were “pork,” and did not directly assist victims of the storm. (Several media outlets have debunked that claim.)

The conservative Heritage Foundation criticized the relief package and said it should be “dramatically reduced in scope and handled through the regular budget process.” It went on to argue Congress should offset emergency disaster spending with cuts elsewhere.

About 90 days after Sandy hit the U.S., Congress finally passed the $50 billion package, and the margin was actually close: 242 members of the House voted yes, and 180 voted no. Of those 180 no votes, 179 were Republicans. (All three of Minnesota’s GOP representatives at the time — Erik Paulsen, John Kline, and Michele Bachmann — voted no.) The Senate passed the measure 62 to 36, with all 36 no votes coming from the GOP side.

The more fiscally conservative bent of the House GOP bled over to those who had supported the Katrina relief package, seven years prior: According to ProPublica, 58 House Republicans voted for the post-Katrina bills and against the post-Sandy bills.

‘Yet another bailout’

The Sandy relief bill, Harkins says, “was the first real time you saw the politics hit hard, because the dollars were so large, and Congress couldn’t find a way to find offsets for that in a way that did not harm other parts of the government.”

That dynamic has persisted since September, when Congress returned from its August recess under pressure to pass an aid package in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

On Sept. 6, Congress passed a $8 billion bill to assist victims of Harvey, which left the city of Houston and other areas of southeast Texas submerged after historic floods. That passed the House overwhelmingly, by a margin of 419 to 3.

Then, things got more political: on Sept. 8, Congress moved to make $15 billion available to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with Harvey. But the legislation tied relief for Harvey victims with provisions to extend funding for the federal government through December, and to increase the government’s borrowing limit. After passing the Senate, the House approved the vehicle by a vote of 316 to 90. Emmer was one of the 90 no votes. He stated afterward he believed the vote was a continutation of the “unsustainable” status quo.

Congress was forced to take up disaster relief again last week, in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and historically deadly and damaging wildfires in California. On the $36.5 billion package to assist victims of those disasters, Lewis joined Emmer, and 67 other Republicans, in voting no.

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A central reason Lewis cited for his no vote was that the measure wrote off a significant chunk of the flood insurance program’s $25 billion debt, while failing to incorporate proposals to reform the program.

In June, the House Financial Services Committee advanced a set of measures to reform the troubled insurance program. Some, like a proposal to counter insurance claim fraud, received bipartisan support, while a proposal to shift some risky NFIP policyholders to private insurers was opposed by nearly all the committee’s Democrats.

“I could not support, in an era of a $20 trillion national debt, a write-off of $16 billion of the National Flood Insurance Program’s debt in yet another bailout with absolutely no reforms or offsets to the spending,” Lewis said in a statement.

In a statement to MinnPost, Emmer, who sits on the Financial Services Committee, said he was disappointed that the proposed NFIP reforms his committee passed did not go anywhere.

“It is difficult to understand why we cannot support Americans in need of relief, while reforming the mechanisms that provide it at the same time. Unless changes are made, our country will continue to lurch from disaster-to-disaster as programs like the NFIP remain deep in debt, and our forest management practices stay one step behind — instead of ahead — of the next wildfire.”

By way of example, Emmer’s office pointed to legislation, proposed by a group of Republicans, that would reform the way the government pays for fighting wildfires. One bill, proposed by Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, aims to prevent a recurring scenario in which the U.S. Forest Service is forced to borrow from its other programs — such as wildfire prevention — in order to pay to fight ongoing wildfires. 

“This vote could have been an opportunity for us to not only provide the immediate relief so many are in need of, but to make some of these necessary changes to improve our ability to respond to future disasters,” Emmer said. “Instead we have maintained the status quo, all while our national debt continues to grow heavier on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.”

Democrats: But what about your tax cuts?

Critics of conservative opposition to the relief bills argue that the period immediately after a major natural disaster is no time to insist on spending offsets or sweeping reforms to federal programs.

Fifth District DFL Rep. Keith Ellison told MinnPost that he finds the votes against the recent disaster relief bills “appalling and disturbing.”

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“When you’re passing a bill to deal with a community’s environmental disaster, you help get people the help they need, then you can continue to debate reforms later,” he said. “But you don’t vote no when a community is in need that way.”

Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum criticized Republicans for demanding spending offsets in disaster relief legislation, while advocating for a tax reform plan that could have a significant impact on the federal debt.

GOP leaders have not yet specified how, exactly, they will pay for the sweeping tax overhaul they want to pass by the end of the year, but some have claimed that a combination of spending cuts and economic growth will make the plan deficit-neutral in the long run, irking fiscal hard-liners in the party.

A recent study from the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget found the GOP tax plan could add $2.2 trillion to the deficit every year — assuming that they are able to raise $3.6 trillion in revenue.

“It is deeply disappointing that the same Republicans who want to explode the deficit with tax cuts for billionaires are unwilling to help Americans whose homes have been flooded by hurricanes or burned by wildfires,” McCollum said in a statement.

To Ellison, the fact that Republicans are so aggressively pushing a tax plan without knowing its full impact on the federal debt means they are not really that serious about the federal debt, anyway.

“I doubt these folks really have the debt and deficit as their real concern,” he said. “I believe they don’t believe the proper role of the government is to help citizens in need.”

A case-by-case basis

According to Georgetown’s Harkins, it’s too early to say if the trend lines from Katrina to Sandy to this fall’s disasters mean anything going forward, or if Republicans will soon have the numbers to legitimately bargain for spending cuts to offset any new spending on disaster relief.

“I’m betting it’ll still be on a case-by-case basis, about what’s affected, and who’s affected,” he said. Indeed, not a single Floridian or Californian was among the 69 no votes for last week’s relief bill. Just six Texas Republicans voted no on the measure, and none of them represent the Gulf Coast areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Harvey.

Harkins says that it’s not necessarily wrong to make the argument that Congress should reform key programs, like the NFIP, as it appropriates relief money in the wake of disasters. But, he adds, “that’s a much easier argument to make when it’s not your neighbors who are affected. If the flooding was because of torrential rains in Minnesota that flooded out incredible amounts, that all of a sudden, Minneapolis and St. Paul and other areas were being inundated, those members might not quite come down the same way.”

“It’s easier to stand on principle when the floodwaters aren’t in your backyard,” he said.

According to Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, Lewis and Emmer’s votes make sense in the context of their politics.

“Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, the debt didn’t loom as large in their minds as it does now, and certainly, their base is concerned about that, and that’s an argument they can make about it,” he says. “So the Democrats have a point, that the Republicans have changed their votes, but the reason is, Republicans have seen the debt steadily grow, they’re concerned about it personally, and their voters are, too.”

But Schier suggested that if the vote were closer, the no-voting Republicans might have been more reluctant to vote to sink legislation that appropriates billions for sufferers of terrible disasters.

“When the outcome is not in doubt,” he said, “posturing is inviting.”