The Senate's uncommon alliance on flood insurance led to an even rarer outcome yesterday, one in which conservatives sought more spending and Democrats abandoned environmental groups.
The chamber easily approved legislation to reverse most rate hikes required by the Biggert Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, signed into law 18 months ago to address chronic discounts in a program that's $24 billion in debt. The bill passed yesterday by a vote of 67-32 with 14 Republicans joining a unified Democratic Party.
The outcome showcased an unusual amount of cooperation between conservatives who champion smaller government and less spending, like Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and steadfast liberals who promote action on climate change, like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
The result was a hybrid union of lawmakers who passed a bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will increase spending by $900 million over five years. Environmental groups, meanwhile, lobbied against it, saying that it could encourage expanded development in areas threatened by rising seas and intensifying rain.
"It's hard to synergize the overwhelming vote to delay flood insurance rate increases with the desire of many senators to plan for the impacts of climate change," said Joshua Saks, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation. "It shows that there is still much work to be done to help people understand the challenges associated with climate change and the tough choices that come as a result."
Lawmakers don't believe there's a contradiction. Helping homeowners avoid unaffordable insurance prices can be achieved on the one hand, said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), while climate policies are pursued on the other.
"It's true that climate change is making the weather more severe and is costing federal, state and county governments millions and in some cases billions of dollars, but what this flood insurance fix is about is enabling people to stay in their home right now," Schatz said yesterday.
"We have a job to do when it comes to addressing climate change, but our short-term challenge right now is that people were literally not going to be able to afford their houses," he added.
Climate change 'not a fact'
Some advocates wondered why those objectives can't be pursued at the same time.
Environmental groups endorsed an alternative effort in the flood insurance debate. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers supported an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.); it capped the rate hikes under Biggert-Waters at 25 percent annually.
That would have prevented the explosive increases affecting some homeowners, while also preserving the intent of Biggert-Waters to phase out subsidies for some of the nation's riskiest properties.
The Senate rejected Toomey's amendment yesterday 34-65, providing an unusual scene in which every Democrat voted against a measure endorsed by environmental groups. Eleven Republicans also opposed it.
The unusual optics continued. Thirty-four Republicans supported the Toomey measure -- and the environmentalists. One of them was Scott of South Carolina, a tea party favorite who would later vote for the stronger bill delaying the hikes for four years.
Scott, who sold homeowners insurance for 20 years before joining Congress, said that the nation will soon have to address the impacts of natural disasters on a larger scale, because they're expensive to the taxpayer. He mentioned tornadoes, earthquakes and flooding and questioned whether people should continue to live in areas prone to those events.
But he doesn't seem to think that climate change is sharpening weather catastrophes.
"I'm not an expert on climate change, but I'll tell you that it's been colder than the dickens," Scott said yesterday. "The president says it's a fact, but it's not a fact here [in the Senate]."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency undertook a years-long study to assess the potential impacts of climate change on the National Flood Insurance Program. It found that sea-level rise, changes in precipitation and climbing property value stand to expand the size of the nation's floodplain by up to 45 percent over the next 87 years. Flood losses will begin to grow soon, with each policy seeing claims rise by 10 to 15 percent on average by 2020, the report said.
Pursuing policy or politics?
The Senate measure passed yesterday addresses rising concern among lawmakers that Biggert-Waters is leading to some explosive rate increases for people whose homes sit below the anticipated reach of floodwater. New maps are expected to increase the number of those homes over the coming years.
The idea that FEMA would begin phasing out long-held discounts before identifying how that might affect poorer families prompted lawmakers to halt the hikes for four years. That would give researchers enough time to study who would be affected and how to give them relief.
The bill was introduced by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), but its strongest champion was perhaps Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who faces a difficult election this fall. Some opponents of the bill assert that the measure is being driven by election-year politics, rather than a desire to fix the flood program.
"It doesn't address any of the actual reasons that properties are at such a high risk of flooding, and it won't help a single homeowner to protect his or her home or belongings from a flood," Jimi Grande, a senior vice president at the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said of the Menendez-Isakson bill. "Instead, it gives elected officials the ability to say they lowered flood insurance premiums during an election year."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said his chamber will not vote on the Senate bill, although he seems supportive of less sweeping efforts to help homeowners. The White House also has misgivings about the Senate measure, saying in a policy statement this week that it would "further erode the financial position of the NFIP."
Landrieu said yesterday that she anticipates the House will strongly support a four-year delay. Reps. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have offered a bill that's identical to the Senate measure. Landrieu estimates that it could gain 100 additional co-sponsors over the coming weeks, giving it more than 230 supporters. She also suggested that Boehner might change his tune.
"The speaker's been very busy, but when he starts hearing from people in Ohio, I think he'll get on board and try to help us fix this problem for the people of his state," Landrieu said.