House lawmakers approved spending $50.7 billion last night for a vast rebuilding effort in areas stricken by Superstorm Sandy, deciding with bipartisan support that paying for disasters and projects to avert future damage would be an acceptable increase to the federal deficit.
The aid package provides $17 billion in emergency relief and $33.7 billion to fix ruined infrastructure, like subway systems, roads and scores of federal facilities. Included in that amount is $2.9 billion for new projects, like fortifying beaches, to prevent damage from future natural catastrophes.
Both measures passed easily. The bill containing $17 billion received 327 votes in support and 91 against. The larger one, in the form of an amendment carrying an additional $33.7 billion, passed by a margin of 228-192; 38 Republicans supported it.
The Obama administration, which sought $13 billion for mitigation efforts, has said that averting unpredictable losses in the future is a form of adaptation to climate change. Yet others believe that elements of the bill could encourage more development along ever-denser coastlines, a factor that is already leading to climbing disaster losses.
One of the most contentious elements of the House debate centered on Rep. Mick Mulvaney's (R-S.C.) amendment seeking to offset $17 billion in emergency aid with across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending. Mulvaney, of the chamber's conservative wing, represents a newer philosophy among Republicans that disaster aid should no longer contribute to the nation's widening deficit.
His amendment failed when 71 Republicans joined Democrats to oppose it. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the measure would "slash and burn" programs providing health care to veterans and endanger troop safety in Afghanistan.
"This amendment goes against the precedent of previous disaster funding," Rogers said, noting that his committee helped trim $100 billion from the federal budget last year without offsetting disaster aid.
The vote reveals a sharp split among Republicans as government spending promises to dominate Washington politics throughout debates on the debt ceiling this winter and automatic sequester cuts scheduled for early March. Yesterday, 151 Republicans supported Mulvaney's amendment to clip 1.63 percent from discretionary spending to pay for the disaster package.
"The time has come and gone in this nation where we can walk in here one day and spend 9 or 17 or 60 billion dollars and not think about who's paying for it," Mulvaney said yesterday on the House floor.
Hitting the disaster 'jackpot'
Conservatives are not the only ones seeking new ways to respond to the nation's growing problem with disasters. The cost of rebuilding is a problem, but so is the message sent to states and homeowners with massive aid packages, some observers say.
Lindene Patton, the climate product officer with the global insurer Zurich Financial Services Group, is concerned that free-flowing disaster aid encourages states and localities to keep weaker building standards. That can help attract developers, and tax revenue, to communities. But it can also help create future losses.
"You don't want to encourage states, for example, to hold down building codes so they can hit the jackpot when the next loss occurs," Patton said, referring to large infusions of federal funding into municipal infrastructure.
Placing conditions on federal aid could be one way to pressure states into requiring tougher structures. It's similar to the historical initiative when Washington threatened to withhold transportation funding for states that failed to raise the drinking age, Patton said. This time, the goal would be economic stability in a period of climbing disaster losses.
"If [states] can't prove that this investment, that they say will last 30 years, or whatever it is depending on the kind of infrastructure, is designed in a way to meet the climatic conditions that will be present by the end of its useful life, then maybe the federal government says, 'No matching funds,'" Patton said.
The Sandy assistance package enjoyed widespread support for its ability to help homeowners and communities recover from the October storm, which heaved record sea surges measuring up to 15 feet across low barrier islands and into stretches of New York City.
Immediate relief overshadows long-term challenges
Still, some of the policies that promise to help communities rebuild might also carry future risk, some observers say. The largest funding package, providing $33.6 billion overall and offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a senior appropriator, gives $16 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for reconstruction in low-income neighborhoods.
That can help battered neighborhoods in the short term, but it might also send a message to families that they don't need federal flood insurance to recover from a storm, said Joshua Saks, the legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation. Saks supports the aid package.
"When we come in post-disaster and use [Community Development Block Grants] to make people whole who didn't buy flood insurance, we're circumventing the program," Saks said. "That's a concern long-term. Will people around the rest of the country want to continue to get insurance? What would that do to the rates? What would that do ultimately to the market signal, and then, ultimately, to the land that protects us? Because, as I always like to tell you, the best flood control money can buy is Mother Nature."
Frelinghuysen's spending package also includes $4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to fix existing projects and build new ones, like dunes along vulnerable beaches. Supporters say engineered beaches can protect towns from rising seas. But others say the sand walls are too expensive, because they need frequent replenishing and provide a false sense of security.
Hold back the ocean?
"You're putting sand where you know it's going to be washed away," said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's like a kid building a sand castle, hoping he can hold back the ocean. That's all that is."
Lawmakers introduced about 100 amendments to the disaster package, but in the end, 13 were permitted by the Rules Committee to be debated on the House floor. One of them, introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.), sought to ensure that the disaster package only waived the requirement that towns provide at least 35 percent of the cost of beach replenishment projects for Sandy-related projects. There was concern that the language could be interpreted to mean that the federal government would pay the entire future cost of those beach projects.
"We need to rebuild," Blumenauer said in a statement. "But we also need to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, and not on projects that could be ongoing for 10, 20, 50 years and have nothing to do with the damage inflicted by Sandy."
His amendment was accepted.
As deliberations on the aid package took place, the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and conservation groups, urged Congress to approve the funding because it can create jobs and increase resiliency as the climate changes.
The group pointed to concerns yesterday around the country's aging infrastructure -- including energy, water and transit systems -- and urged Congress to rebuild these systems with an eye toward the new climate reality.
"Hurricane Sandy exposed terrible deficits in our nation's infrastructure and the vulnerability of millions of people in the face of climate change," said David Foster, executive director of the alliance.
Reporter Ines Perez contributed.