Senate readies $3.5B shot in the arm for Haiti rebuilding efforts

With support from aid groups and business associations, Congress is readying another piece of legislation to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti to get back on its feet.

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will mark up a new long-term relief package for the United States’ island neighbor. Devastated by a massive earthquake in January, Haiti’s tragedy has inspired several bills to pass Congress, dealing with everything from boosting U.S. trade with the country to encouraging more charitable donations from Americans.

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The legislation, authored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the panel chairman, and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has volunteered in Haiti in the past, will authorize $3.5 billion in reconstruction funds for Haiti over five years. The bill also requires the U.S. Agency for International Development to submit a long-term reconstruction plan to Congress as well as mandate the president to appoint a senior policy coordinator for Haiti.

Neal Denton, senior vice president of government relations and strategic partnerships for the American Red Cross, said his group was “very supportive of the committee's approach to the recovery effort.”

“We are supportive of additional funding, of working with other partners and of engaging the government of Haiti in a constructive way to find long-term solutions to these problems,” Denton said.

Denton was down in Haiti this week, helping with the Red Cross’s operations in the recovery effort. To support Haiti’s recovery efforts, the Red Cross has raised roughly $450 million and has spent or committed $115 million already. The organization will have spent or committed about $200 million by year’s end, according to Denton.

“There is so much to see there to be hopeful for. But there is so much work that still needs to be done,” Denton said.

Business associations are also supportive of the bill, seeing the need to help Haiti rebuild after its January earthquake.

Steve Lamar, executive vice president for the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said his trade group has long thought the recovery effort needs to be “a multi-pronged approach.”

“We would like to see [the bill] happen. One of the problems you run into Haiti now is critical infrastructure, whether it is roads or communications systems,” Lamar said. “My companies have all been pretty active about talking about the need for reconstruction in Haiti as well as raising funds to support the recovery there.”

Since the earthquake, Lamar and other lobbyists for business groups pushed hard for a new trade agreement with Haiti, called HOPE II. It passed Congress in February and is still awaiting the president’s signature to become law.

Designed to attract foreign investment to Haiti, the bill allows Haitian textile goods to enter the United States duty-free. Apparel is a big part of the Haitian economy, employing 25,000 people there and accounting for more than 75 percent of its export earnings.

Other measures passed by Congress to help Haiti include a debt relief bill while the Obama administration approved “temporary protected status” for Haitians stuck in America immediately after the earthquake, temporarily granting them protection from deportation. Lawmakers also approved tax deductions for those making charitable donations to Haitian relief.

Business lobbyists are not done with pushing for more legislation to help Haiti. Many are eyeing legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) that would create a private, nonprofit organization to offer loans and grants to joint U.S.-Haitian ventures as the next bill that should be passed by Congress.