Why Approving Emergency Funding For Harvey Might Not Be Easy For Congress

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 9:55 am

When the floodwaters in Texas eventually recede, the cleanup and rebuilding will begin.

The cleanup bill will likely be hefty — possibly topping $100 billion — and the vast majority of those efforts will be funded by the federal government.

President Trump doesn't seem worried about Congress footing the bill. "You're going to see very rapid action from Congress," he told reporters Monday. "You're going to get your funding."

In a visit to Austin on Tuesday, Trump met with the state's two Republican senators and again alluded to the price tag for federal help.

"We'll be working with these characters over there and think we'll come through with a really, you know the right solution," the president said, adding recovery from Harvey is "going to be a costly proposition."

But emergency response legislation has become increasingly partisan in recent years, and Congress is already facing a daunting stretch of must-pass bills when it returns next week.

Funding for cleanup and rebuilding will likely pass — but it probably won't be easy.

"I sort of see it as everyone holding their breath," Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, said about the coming stretch of deadlines.

Funding for the government expires Sept. 30. The deadline for raising the debt ceiling hits next month, too. It has been increasingly hard to round up conservative support for both measures in recent years. "It's not yet clear how exactly they're going to proceed," Binder said. "And there's the wild card of the president who has threatened to shut down the government if they don't fund a border wall."

Several popular government programs expire at the end of September, too, and need reauthorization votes beforehand.

That is the backdrop that urgent Harvey funding will be added to.

"The federal funds are absolutely essential to recovery," says Edward Richards, director of Louisiana State University's Climate Change Law and Policy Project.

Over the past six decades, the federal government has become the prime funder and driver of recovery efforts after major storms.

On Tuesday night, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that her department would make $25 million "immediately available to help Texas with repairs on flood-damaged roads and bridges," following a request by the state. A statement from the secretary said the funding "represents the beginning of our commitment to help repair Texas' affected infrastructure."

Richards describes federal funding as coming in three waves: first, initial grants doled out to individuals and businesses by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After that, the National Flood Insurance Program issues billions in claims for flooded-out homes and businesses. "That is fairly swift and fairly certain money. It's the most reliable relief after a flood," Richards says.

Except for this: The National Flood Insurance Program happens to be one of those federal programs that expires on Sept. 30.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., insists that won't be a problem. "Details are still being worked through, but the flood insurance program will be reauthorized," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong in a statement.

But the program has its share of critics and is still in debt because of major claims payments from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The third wave of federal funding is even more politically precarious: It's the individual relief bills Congress passes after major disasters.

After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, 179 House Republicans voted against relief for the New York-New Jersey area, including several members of the Texas delegation.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did as well, in one of his first votes after joining the Senate. Cruz has found himself defending that vote all week. "The problem with that particular bill is it became a $50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork," he said on MSNBC. "Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.

Fact-checkers disagree — and many lawmakers still remember that vote. "Ted Cruz was one of the leaders who was trying to keep New York and New Jersey and Long Island from getting the funding we needed, and now he's the first one in asking for aid to Texas," New York Rep. Peter King, a fellow Republican, told Long Island's News 12. "But as bad as I feel toward Ted Cruz — what a hypocrite he is — I'm not going to take that out on Texas."

Another quote being resuscitated this week: a 2005 floor speech delivered by then-Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., warning against funding Katrina relief without cutting funding elsewhere. "Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt," Pence said at the time.

Binder says both Cruz and Pence are good examples of a longtime legislative adage: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." In other words, changing circumstances can lead to changing opinions.

To wit, the recent caveat-free promise Pence made to Houston station KTRH: "I think what you're going to see is the national government — and we anticipate the Congress — are going to make the resources available to see Texas through the rescue operation, through the recovery."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says Democrats are ready and willing to vote for a relief bill. And House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said in a statement that "my committee stands at the ready to provide any necessary additional funding for relief and recovery."

So, the measure will likely pass. The big questions are how much it will ultimately cost and how much it affects all of Congress' other must-pass bills.

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