Congress Must Fund Harvey Recovery Ahead of Petty Partisan Priorities

Post has been updated (see bold insert below)

Not even this Congress can avoid the reality that its game plan for an end-of-the-year home stretch has been severely altered. America’s appetite for petty politics has been washed away by a merciless tempest.

Providing federal aid to rural and urban areas shattered by Hurricane Harvey is pressing for communities drowning in need. Floodwaters, high winds and storm surge are now estimated to have wreaked a whopping $190 billion in destruction. Ensuring help is on the way sits atop the House and Senate agenda for lawmakers returning to Washington today.

With the $19.9 trillion federal debt limit nearly reached and only four weeks until the next federal fiscal year begins, it would be unseemly to engage in the political theatrics of a fiscal showdown in Washington amid all the horror stories and tears shed by and for those whose lives were nearly destroyed by Harvey. Perhaps the stark projection that Harvey eclipsed the cost of Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy combined will curtail the usual grandstanding in Congress that adorns Capitol Hill whenever the federal debt ceiling must be raised to avoid default, or a budget must be passed to ensure the government does not shutter its doors.

Washington should be careful not to ignore or forget all the victims, a great many unseen by most of us. While devastation mainly in Houston unfolded for the cameras, Harvey cut an equally violent and unrelenting swath through countless small towns and rural communities. Farmland, roadside businesses, drinking water supplies and countless homes in towns that most Americans outside of the region never heard of were destroyed or damaged by Harvey’s wrath. Those rural Americans whose lives are spun upside down will need to make sure their plight is known and ultimately their needs met, too.

Clearly Congress must act to fund the Harvey recovery immediately, preferably before it raises the debt ceiling or passes next year’s budget. If Harvey assistance must be attached to debt ceiling legislation, as the Trump administration is advocating, then let it be done quickly and without rancor. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will fund Harvey relief on an installment plan, which is acceptable only if it is does not amount to a scheme to short-change the people of Texas and Louisiana dependent on federal assistance.

UPDATE: Almost shockingly, the curtain came down on the usual Washington theatrics when Trump agreed to a deal proposed by the Democratic congressional leadership that included disaster aid for Harvey; emergency money in anticipation of Hurricane Irma; and an extension on the debt ceiling and funds to keep the government operating for three months. Whatever the motives, Trump’s unpredictable move is good for the country, but it is being described as conservatives’ worst nightmare. The GOP backlash nonetheless did not keep Trump from sharing a victory lap over the deal with his newfound partners on the Democratic side of the aisle.

As for the tone-deaf politicians one bead short of an abacus, they dare not insult Americans with talk at this moment of how jobs can only be created by allowing corporations and the wealthy to pay less taxes. Rural, urban and suburban Americans are suffering because of Harvey, and the victims are the priority. Congress should take care of those Americans in need before it focuses on feeding corporate greed.

Optimistically, Harvey could end up a complete wake up call for many lawmakers in Washington who misinterpret the results of a controversial election as a mandate for their self-serving political ambitions. One example of a course change was scant attention given to a budget provision pre-dating the horrific storm that would have shifted nearly $1 billion in federal disaster relief for other priorities, including the building of Donald Trump’s controversial border wall. The GOP-led House was set to vote this month on the little noticed proposal to slash FEMA funds, but that’s all changed now.

Fortunately for the targets of the ruthless Harvey, priorities are already shifting away from campaign promises and partisan political agendas. The two dozen or so GOP lawmakers from Texas who voted against disaster relief after Super Storm Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012 have seen the light and appear ready to press for the funds needed to rebuild their state. It is a welcome about-face.

Unfortunately, some of those Texas lawmakers, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), have made it worse for themselves by trying to wiggle away from criticism by feebly claiming their vote against Sandy funding came because the $50 billion aid package included non-storm related “pork.” They should have just admitted they had made a mistake with their errant votes instead of having to face even more scorn for offering up a fraudulent excuse.

With another potentially deadly storm on the way, Congress can’t play politics with a Harvey relief package. If Category 5 Hurricane Irma hits the United States it may well make Harvey look like a piker.

Want to help those in need? Links to lists of reputable charities assisting victims of Harvey are here, here, and here.


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