House passes $36.5 billion disaster relief package
The House easily passed legislation on Thursday to provide $36.5 billion in aid for communities affected by recent hurricanes and wildfires, despite concerns from some conservatives about the growing cost of disaster aid.
All of the votes in opposition were from Republicans in the 353-69 vote.
The package includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund — including $4.9 billion for a disaster relief loan account — $16 billion to address national flood insurance program debt and $576.5 million for wildfire recovery efforts. It also provided $1.27 billion for disaster food assistance for Puerto Rico.
The bill advanced as wildfires that are expected to become the costliest in California history continue to rage in the state’s wine country. More than 80 percent of Puerto Rico also remains without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria while major cities in Texas, Florida and other gulf states continue rebuilding efforts following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Congress is likely to approve billions of dollars in additional disaster aid in the months to come.
Many of the Republicans who voted against the bill on Thursday were protesting the increasing fiscal effects of disaster relief legislation.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the head of the Republican Study Committee, said that supplemental disaster relief should be offset with spending cuts.
“It is only a matter of time before the U.S. faces the next catastrophe. But for some reason, the government does not budget with this in mind. Instead, Congress waits for a crisis to happen and then hurries to pass an aid package afterward,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said the debts would add up regardless of how good the cause of disaster relief was.
“If we don’t do something to begin to offset some of this, I think that in a matter of months or a matter of years people are going to look back at this Congress and say, ‘what were they thinking?’” he said.
Sanford’s fellow House Freedom Caucus member Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said that bailing out the Flood Insurance program without reforms amounted to throwing good money after bad.
“Emergency is emergency, but there are programs we’re going to have to deal [with], bite the bullet, and I think flood insurance is one of them, where you also have a moral hazard in its current design,” he said.
Federally-backed flood insurance, he said, results in payouts for people to rebuild property in flood-prone areas, only to have to file more claims when disaster strikes again.
“At a certain point, say you’re not going to keep building the same property,” he said. “You’ve got to have an honest conversation. The subsidizing of putting homes in harm’s way, it’s not really great for society.”
Alongside the current bill, which still needs to pass in the Senate, the total amount of emergency relief funding passed since September is approaching $42 billion, which amounts to nearly 6 percent of the most recent annual deficit.
The issue of spending offsets had been discussed among House Republicans on Wednesday, and GOP sources say they may be included in future spending legislation.
Passage of the aid package came hours after President Trump tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in [Puerto Rico] forever!”
Trump drew pushback from Democrats as well as Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, the island’s non-voting representative in Congress who caucuses with Republicans.
“The American citizens that live in Puerto Rico still are suffering in different ways. This is not the time to focus on how and when the resources will be withdrawn from Puerto Rico,” González said during House floor debate.
Additional funds to assist people affected by natural disasters will likely be included in upcoming spending bills.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called for his state’s congressional delegation to vote against the bill unless it included an additional $18.7 billion in funding specifically for Texas to recover from Hurricane Harvey.
“I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money,” Abbott told the Houston Chronicle. “It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”
Six Texas Republicans voted against the bill.
Following a phone call with Abbott, members of the Texas delegation released a statement identifying nearly $15 billion in the package to be used for people in the state affected by Harvey, including to pay for flood insurance claims and disaster relief.
“We are keeping our eyes focused on the long term recovery needs for Texas, which could exceed $100 billion and we will continue to work closely with Governor Abbott and our community leaders to secure that funding in the weeks ahead,” said Texas GOP Reps. John Culberson and Kay Granger, who are both senior members of the House Appropriations Committee.
Congress moved swiftly in early September to provide a down payment of more than $15 billion in aid following Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into the southeast Texas coast.