Will Congress blow disaster aid -- again?

Right now, as the rain keeps falling on Houston and dams and levees overflow, the focus of efforts at the local, state, and federal level have to remain on rescue. Soon, though, the water will stop falling from the sky and will drain back into the gulf. At that point, parts of Texas and Louisiana will need a massive effort to repair and rebuild, but at this point the scope and scale of that effort still cannot be measured, not even in time:


The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said on Monday that he expected more than 450,000 people to apply for federal assistance.

“We’re going to be here for several years helping you guys recover,” he said. “The state of Texas is about to undergo one of the largest recovery housing missions the nation has ever seen.” …

Local, state and federal officials conceded that the scale of the crisis was so vast that they were nowhere near being able to measure it, much less fully address it.

Across a region that is home to millions of people and includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, no one has a clear idea how many people are missing, how many evacuated, how many hunkered down or were trapped in their waterlogged homes, or how many inundated houses and vehicles are beyond saving.

Congress has already begun to prepare for the next phase. Andrew touched on this earlier, but later in the day US News reported that lawmakers on recess have begun discussing the need to act quickly on the disaster, perhaps in multi-stage funding bills as with Hurricane Katrina. We’re already starting to see some of the same demands that nearly derailed earlier relief efforts on Capitol Hill and used the victims of these disasters as pawns:

Some lawmakers have proposed tackling Harvey relief in pieces – quickly passing a “down payment” ahead of a more comprehensive relief package later, similar to the strategy following Hurricane Katrina. While most members were away for recess in August 2005, Congress passed $10 billion in immediate relief, later adding $51 billion in additional aid. Others have proposed attaching it to a continuing resolution Congress is expected to pass that will extend current government funding levels for several months beyond the end of the fiscal year at the close of September.

Lawmakers are generally in agreement that Texas and Louisiana will require substantial federal aid. An early estimate from Moody’s Analytics suggested the damage could cost between $40 billion and $50 billion.

Some conservative lawmakers have said they will push to pair any new relief spending with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.


With all due respect, this is not the time for assessing other budget issues. Congress can deal with trade-offs in the normal budget process separately. Right now, the focus should be entirely on providing the necessary resources to respond to this disaster, not to ride partisan hobby horses while millions of people need relief.

The same thing happened in 2005 and in 2012 with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as I recall in my column for The Week. It started with Peter King’s tweet on Saturday attacking Ted Cruz and others for not staying silent about the massive pork-barrel spending that went into Sandy relief, which was a convenient way to bypass budget caps in place at the time.

That accusation leaves out critical context which will undoubtedly arise in any effort to appropriate money for emergency recovery efforts. The Hurricane Sandy bill appropriated $60 billion, but a significant amount of the bill didn’t have anything to do with emergency recovery efforts. Billions of dollars within the bill didn’t go to the New York and New Jersey areas affected by the hurricane. It included, among other items, $2 billion for highway upgrades across the country, $150 million for fisheries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, a boost to Amtrak subsidies, and $16 billion in block grants to 47 states and territories.

Cruz, Rand Paul, and other Republicans didn’t oppose emergency spending for hurricane-stricken areas. They opposed the use of emergency funds for non-emergency spending, an effort that conveniently bypassed some of the self-imposed spending limits Congress had placed on itself earlier. Rather than take up these spending priorities as part of normal budgeting, legislators took advantage of the crisis to lard up the bill with self-serving pork — and then painted critics as heartless and cruel when they objected.


The pork trap isn’t the only potential issue.

However, history also cuts in the other direction. In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit, some Republicans demanded cuts in federal spending to offset the emergency funds for the Gulf disaster zone. Vice President Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana, told ABC News that “we simply cannot break the bank of the federal budget,” and that spending on “big-ticket items” had to be curtailed to fund Katrina relief. That also put the normal budgeting process ahead of the emergency. If offsets were needed, Congress had plenty of time to address that in later budget talks, just as 47 states could argue for their $16 billion in development block grants from long-past disasters during normal budgeting after Sandy relief.

The bottom line should be the need to respond quickly and efficiently:

Those who attempt to exploit this tragedy to fund their own agendas need to be exposed for their opportunism. While Texans, first responders, and the National Guard risk their lives to help the victims of this natural disaster, they deserve a singular focus in emergency relief spending.

Congress needs to pass a clean relief bill, pronto. Anything else should go into the regular budget process, which is conveniently at hand. Save your pork and offsets for that, lawmakers.

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John Sexton 7:20 PM on November 30, 2023