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What Congress Can Do About Harvey

A dysfunctional legislature prepares to help out in the wake of massive devastation.

Mark Hay

Mark Hay

Left: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty; Right: Houston after Harvey, photo by Win McNamee/Getty

As the record-breaking Hurricane Harvey battered coastal Texas this week, President Donald Trump promised those affected his administration would respond to their needs with rapid and robust action. It's easy to be cynical about that, as his administration has proposed cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but still, no one is against the idea of the government helping people who have just lost everything to a natural disaster.

Yet neither Trump nor congressional leaders have outlined what aid they're ready to deliver, or how or when they'd deliver it. Nor have they said much about any plans they might advance to mitigate or prevent future Harvey-like disasters. Despite the sense of urgency on this topic, we may not get a full sense of the federal response to Harvey for weeks. So what do we know so far about how Congress and the administration will respond to this disaster?

As after any disaster, the government's post-Harvey priority will be allocating funds to deal with the storm's immediate damage and start rebuilding. This will not likely come in the form of one or two massive bills within the space of a few weeks, as with the relief funds Congress provided areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Local officials have speculated that they will need perhaps more than $200 billion in federal recovery assistance, dwarfing Katrina's $120 billion record. Harvey's waters are still draining out of parts of Texas, and the storm is still buffeting parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. That means we won't have a full sense of Harvey's damages and their price tag for some time—perhaps months. Many of the nation's lawmakers do not seem eager to shell out massive aid packages until these costs become clear.

The plan at present, according to experts consulted for this piece, seems to be to to rely on FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to sponsor immediate rescue and stabilization efforts until some concrete initial cost estimates come out. This fund, explains Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, was not as well capitalized during Katrina, requiring a quicker large-scale response. The problem is the DRF only has $1.3 billion available for these operations; the first month of response efforts after 2012's smaller Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast cost FEMA $1.9 billion. The agency has some wiggle room to move money from elsewhere into disaster relief. But the precarious nature of the DRF means that Congress will likely need to pass at least a small bill bolstering it within the first days of September. More money could come in the form of one or more bills in the coming weeks and months, alongside more solid cost estimates.

Finding the time to pass even a small relief bill will not be easy. September is full of must-pass legislation: Raising the debt ceiling so the country can keep paying its bills, funding the federal government past the end of the fiscal year, and reauthorizing the Children's Health Insurance Program, Federal Aviation Administration, and National Flood Insurance Program. Both houses of Congress are only in session for 12 days this month. Introducing a standalone relief bill into this packed schedule, as Trump advocated earlier this week, could throw an already tenuous legislative schedule out of whack.



Some Republicans see Harvey relief as a possible boon to this schedule. Since disaster relief is difficult to oppose or delay, strategists think it could be attached to contentious legislation, like raising the debt ceiling or passing a stopgap continuing budget resolution, to decrease the risk of drawn-out spending debates. However there's no consensus on what it should be tied to, or if this tie-in process wouldn't delay the passage of an initial relief bill beyond reason.

Congress's approach will likely solidify only after Trump huddles with leaders from both parties on Wednesday. But initial reports indicate that the White House plans to ask for $5.95 billion in initial relief funding next week and try to attach it to a vote early this month on the debt ceiling. It also seems as if Harvey will force Trump to back down on his threats to force a government shutdown at the end of the month if Congress doesn't give him money for his border wall—even Trump presumably doesn't like the optics of closing the government while it manages a disaster.

Once an initial decision on relief is reached, Harvey will also spur a massive debate in Congress on how to reform the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), up for reauthorization this month. Created in 1968 to ensure consumer access to affordable coverage after private insurers stopped providing flood policies, and reauthorized every five years, the NFIP also sought to make sure that people avoided building too much in areas prone to flooding. But flaws in the system, like outdated maps and premium rates that don't reflect evolving flood risks in an era of climate change, mean that the program, coupled with poor local regulations, essentially encourages people to build flood-prone homes in dangerous locations. As a result, it has paid repeated sums to constantly rebuild a few homes after they inevitably got washed away.

The NFIP faced few calls for reform until 2004, since it managed to fund itself with premiums. But the expansion of cities further into high-risk areas and the increase of brutal storm events due to climate change have definitively broken the program. Katrina forced it to start borrowing money from the Treasury to pay out claims. After Sandy, its borrowing limit was boosted to about $30 billion, of which it has to date used $25 billion. It has by now clearly become a driver of the national deficit, as well as an abettor of flood risks and damages.

Once it came up for reauthorization in 2008, reformers on both sides of the political divide called for rate hikes to better reflect actual risks, better floodplain mapping, and space for private insurers to compete with the program to drive down costs. But pushback from developers and politicians representing policyholders who don't want to see a comfortable status quo change have made reform difficult. Legislators had to pass temporary extensions 16 times until they could institute a reauthorization plan with some reforms in 2012, then walked them back with a 2014 bill delaying the impact of those limited changes.

Efforts to reform the program in its 2017 reauthorization have been underway for two years. A compromise bill cleared the relevant House committee. But it has not reached the floor. And the Senate, though initially poised to mirror the House's bill, seems utterly divided now on how to proceed. "They were not going to get reauthorization done before September 30," says Ellis, who has expected since January that there'd be a short-term extension of the existing program.

Although Harvey will bring more attention to the need for reform, it almost certainly won't avert this temporary extension. But it may limit how many times lawmakers can avoid resolving debates on reforms with further program continuations. According to Laura Lightbody of Pew's Flood-Prepared Communities program, Harvey will affect up to 500,000 NFIP policyholders—10 percent of the nationwide total. Not all of those claims will need to be paid out immediately. But within the space of months, the program will likely overrun its borrowing limits and require something more than an extension to continue operating. This creates a de facto deadline for a more substantive reauthorization and reform bill. But Lightbody cautions that no one can say at this point how the post-Harvey national debate on the program will affect what reforms are eventually made.

"A six-month extension would be ideal," says R.J. Lehmann of the bipartisan policy research group R Street. "We can get through the initial piece of this where the most important thing is to get to people who need help. Stage two is to discuss some of the longer-term things that need to be addressed before this falls off the radar. And it's going to fall off of the radar about a year from now. Nobody will be talking about this anymore."

Beyond Harvey relief and NFIP reform, there are numerous disaster response and mitigation ideas floating around policy circles. I counted around two dozen bills on the issue in Congress, some of which have been roped into NFIP reform debates, but some of which are entirely independent. Many of these ideas deal with inventive new ways to finance mitigation efforts—to make sure rebuilt cities are less prone to future disasters or damages. These are important matters to consider, as Lightbody notes that very little disaster relief money goes towards such efforts. While the idea is popular, politicians are loathe to stack dollars on top of already costly relief measures to fund them, and mitigation can be pricey. But we probably won't see much action on any of these proposals.

Some of them "will get raised," says Lehmann. Passing a bill is another matter. "This cycle's already packed. For something to come out of nowhere—there's no time for committee hearings, there's no time for the coalition building that would be required."

One of the few additional disaster-management policies that could gain traction, the experts I spoke to agree, is the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. A program implemented by the Obama administration in 2015, it would have required that buildings constructed with federal funding use higher standards to mitigate flood risks, reflecting the effects of climate change—similar to what NFIP reformers want to see. Trump revoked that policy in August, but it could be revived by Congress as an attachment to relief spending or NFIP reform and reauthorization.

So to wit, we'll likely get a tiny relief bill early this month to keep basic rescue and recovery efforts underway, then one or more larger bills weeks or months down the line, although when and how much they'll cover remains unclear. We'll see more discussion on reforming one of the federal programs that amplified Harvey's effects. Where that discussion will go is unclear, however. And we may see a boneheaded anti-risk mitigation move by Trump reversed. Maybe. If there's time and bandwidth to address it on a hectic legislative calendar.

That may not seem like a lot. But given Congress's track record this year, is anyone surprised?

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