Bloomberg: Blame pork, not Boehner, for Sandy relief delay; Update: $9.7 billion insurance funding for Sandy passes House

John Boehner got some unexpected support today over his off-again, on-again approach to the Hurricane Sandy relief bill.  Boehner has pledged to allow a vote on both bills, which probably saved his speakership, but not until after getting publicly blasted by fellow Republicans Chris Christie and Peter King.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a radio audience today that the ire was misdirected — and should have been aimed at legislators that exploited a crisis to fund their own hobby horses:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who previously declined to slam House Speaker John Boehner over Congress’ stalled Hurricane Sandy aid, took his argument to the next level this morning and suggested federal lawmakers are partially to blame for the delay in the vote on the package because they insert “things that are totally extraneous” into bills such as this. Although Mr. Bloomberg didn’t specify the extraneous problem items, the legislation has been criticized by Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan for being “packed with funding for unrelated items, such as commercial fisheries in American Samoa and roof repair of museums in Washington, D.C.”

“There’s this ‘Christmas Tree effect’ where legislators put in their favorite bills and tack them onto something. The [Obama] administration does that, that’s why you have an omnibus bill–to force everybody to vote for things that would never stand up in the light of day if they were individual,” Mr. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show with John Gambling. “I’m sympathetic. Yelling and screaming at [Mr. Boehner] is just not my style. It may be effective, it may not be. Everybody’s got to make their own decisions. I think the legislative leaders who criticize and those in the Legislature should stop and think, they do exactly the same thing in terms of ladling on things that are totally extraneous but it’s the only way they get them through.”

As I wrote three weeks ago, almost 25% of the $60-billion-plus package goes somewhere else than directly to the victims or the infrastructure actually damaged by the hurricane. We’re not just talking about a few million here and there, but more than $13 billion in unrelated spending attached to this bill.  While it may have been impolitic to slow down the bill’s progress to deal with the pork issue, it was hardly irrational.

Jen Rubin agrees, and wonders why few Republicans seemed interested in defending a demonstration of fiscal responsibility:

But virtually none in the mainstream media at the time would concede that the speaker of the House was dead right in holding the line on a $60 billion measure stuffed with add-ons having little to do with Sandy rebuilding. Only after Boehner’s delay did the media begin detailing the extraneous, expensive items thrown into the Sandy aid bill.

A few commentators have it exactly right (“Boehner, in a brief moment of fiscal sanity, decided the pork-laden Sandy relief bill might need a tad more examination before we rush to fix the roof on the Smithsonian Institution and subsidize fisheries in hurricane-ravaged Alaska”). The Wall Street Journal editorial board is blunt: “This legislative maneuvering took courage on the Speaker’s part. There was the predictable outrage from New York and New Jersey Democrats. But the sniping from inside the GOP has been unhinged. . . . Mr. Boehner’s sin was ensuring that the House had time to sort the pork from the parochial. Mr. Christie should thank him on behalf of New Jersey taxpayers.” It remains unclear why Christie, who has been a tough guardian of the public purse in Trenton, would not have “pointed out that Democrats from the rest of the country have jeopardized the aid by cynically using the bill for their own parochial interests.”

From Christie’s account, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R- Va.) was doing his best to rush the aid package through after the “fiscal cliff” vote. If so, the far right should reconsider whether he is really Boehner’s superior when it comes to fiscal discipline and political courage.

Still, one can cheer the fiscal responsibility while still criticizing the manner in which it took place.  Given the highly sensitive nature of disaster relief — which no one who watched the Katrina mess in 2005-6 should have underestimated — it behooved Boehner to  make sure people like Peter King and other House Republicans from New York and New Jersey were on board with his strategy.  This sounds like a communication problem, as well as a timing issue, and both of those problems point back to the leadership.

Bloomberg, unlike Christie and King, chose not to overreact, and assured his audience that the relief would come:

“It’ll have to go back to the Senate but the votes are there to pass it. It’ll come a few weeks later than I would have liked. But, you know, it’s easy to go criticize the guy. Running a legislature, as anyone that’s ever done it will tell you, it is not easy….It’s herding cats. They just passed a big tax bill with a lot of dissension about no spending cuts and I assume that the Speaker thought it was not a good time at that night to bring up a $60 billion bill….All that matters is that we get it done. And I think this will get done.”

It will now, certainly, but let’s hope we’re not shelling out $13 billion in extra cash to make it happen.  That, by the way, is more than 20% of the extra revenue that Obama’s tax increase will net this year using the static analysis favored by the White House.

Update: Boehner managed to easily pass the $9.7 billion portion, which funds FEMA to pay claims for Sandy on federal flood insurance policies, but it wasn’t unanimous:

The House has approved $9.7 billion in new aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, a face-saving quick move taken three days after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) earned scathing criticism from New York and New Jersey Republicans for canceling a late-night vote on the funds.

The bill, which will allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay out claims to those who held federal flood insurance, was approved on a 354 to 67 vote. The Senate is expected to adopt it later Friday on a unanimous voice vote.

Boehner seems to have had reason to be concerned about bringing a larger $60 billion spending measure to the floor on Tuesday: All the votes against the smaller bill on Friday came from his own party members.

They were encouraged by the conservative Club for Growth, which argued the additional disaster spending should be offset with cuts to other government programs. The continued GOP opposition could spell trouble for a larger $51 billion Sandy bill that Boehner has promised will come before the House on Jan. 15.

Expect a bigger fight over the remaining portion.