Divisions emerge over disaster funding request

By Geof Koss | 10/06/2017 06:57 AM EDT

The House is expected to take up the administration’s $29 billion funding request for hurricane and wildfire relief, but there are already signs of trouble.

Flooding after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston.

Flooding after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. Chabad Lubavitch/Flickr

The House is expected to take up the Trump administration’s $29 billion funding request for hurricane and wildfire relief next week, but there’s already signs of trouble for the latest batch of disaster spending.

The supplemental package includes $12.8 billion in disaster funds related to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, $576.5 million for wildfires, as well as $16 billion in debt forgiveness for the National Flood Insurance Program.

It will come up next week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said yesterday.


"I do not believe this will be the last," McCarthy said, referring to this round of disaster funds.

Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have strongly spoken out in recent days about adding controversial measures to the bill, which would make it harder to pass.

During his floor speech yesterday, Schumer warned Republicans — "particularly those in the House" — against including "extraneous, ideological policy riders" to the supplemental.

"Ideological policy changes to the flood insurance program and forest management policy, should come nowhere near this bill," he said.

McCarthy said yesterday, however, he doesn’t "intend on seeing other things with it."

But it’s not just flood relief that lawmakers are asking for.

Appropriators are also facing pressure from Western members who want to see more funds devoted to wildfires. A coalition of more than 200 groups that includes conservation and outdoor recreation interests urged congressional leaders yesterday calling for a "comprehensive fix to America’s approach to wildfire suppression funding."

Showdown with the White House

In exchange for forgiving almost half of the NFIP’s debt, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney wants Congress to prevent the program from insuring homes constructed in the 100-year floodplain after January 2021, although those homes could still find insurance on the private market (E&E Daily, Oct. 5).

The National Association of Home Builders yesterday came out strongly against the Mulvaney proposal.

"It would simply prevent home builders from being able to provide safe and affordable housing to consumers," the group said in a statement. "By creating uncertainty in the housing market, this proposal would also harm local communities and impair economic growth."

But at least one coastal state lawmaker agreed the time to act is now.

"These changes, especially with regard to private flood insurance, are long overdue, and hopefully this sends a message to the Senate that there is strong support for giving consumers greater choice and more affordable policies," said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) in a statement.

SmarterSafer, a diverse group of organizations from various fields ranging from insurance to wildlife, came out swinging, saying the White House plan didn’t go far enough.

"Although we are pleased to see the White House take a step in this direction by incorporating some reforms in their latest disaster relief proposal, Congress should not pass legislation to forgive the NFIP’s mounting debt without simultaneously passing comprehensive reforms that fix the program and ensure that new debt is not constantly accrued each time a disaster strikes," their statement said.

But the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee suggested sweeping reforms should wait for a broader rewrite of the NFIP.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said it was a good first step that the administration wanted to work on fixing the program, there is still more to be done.

"It’s clear that NFIP needs to be put on a stable footing, and we should consider all proposals to strengthen the program and enhance our flood resilience as part of the committee’s comprehensive reauthorization process," he said.

Other senators were less muted in their criticism of the White House-backed idea. While noting he supports privatization of flood insurance, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said the OMB proposal goes too far.

"It will destroy the national flood insurance program," he told reporters. "It doesn’t do any good to give someone a bus ticket if there are no buses, and if we follow OMB’s proposal we will have a flood insurance program but no flood insurance. So what’s the point?"

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said privatization is "a dangerous opportunity so it’s got to be looked at very carefully."

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said he thought disaster relief and flood insurance reforms should be handled separately but acknowledged the argument "they go hand in glove, and we ought to go ahead and do that now."

"I can see that," Meadows told E&E News.

He also reiterated his preference that disaster funds be offset with budget cuts elsewhere but conceded that it’s a politically untenable position at the moment.

"I don’t know that disaster relief and offsets is a position that even a lot of conservatives can maintain just based on the humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing unfold in Puerto Rico and other places," Meadows said.

But Heritage Action for America signaled yesterday it will oppose a "bailout" for the NFIP absent major structural reforms. The group is also calling for the funds to be offset with budget cuts elsewhere.

"If the administration and congressional leaders want to write off the NFIP’s debt it should be paid for and tied with the reforms similar to those recommended by Director Mulvaney," Heritage Action Vice President Dan Holler said in a statement. "Anything short of that is simply a taxpayer bailout of a failed, big-government program and a victory for the special interests."

Disaster wrangling

Meanwhile, members of Texas’ congressional delegation from both parties yesterday outlined their own specific request to appropriators that the next supplemental include $18.7 billion for recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.

"Texas greatly appreciates the appropriations committees’ efforts to swiftly provide funds," wrote the members, along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

"However, in light of the unprecedented damage from Hurricane Harvey and the historically epochal flooding of Houston, Beaumont and surrounding regions, we all recognize that the funding already appropriated is a small fraction of the federal resources needed to help rebuild Texas and reinvigorate the American economy."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters yesterday it was essential the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are supported in the funding discussions.

She also called for debt relief for Puerto Rico, whose fiscal state was precarious even before the storms.

"What’s happening there now is a challenge to the conscience of America," she told reporters. "We really have to do more and better for them."

Schumer reiterated the point in floor remarks yesterday, noting Puerto Rico’s debt is hamstringing recovery efforts.

"We’ve got to deal with that issue to make it effective," he said.

Reporters George Cahlink, Nick Bowlin and Ariel Wittenberg contributed.