The coming congressional need to provide disaster relief for areas affected by Hurricane Harvey has reopened wounds lingering from a Hurricane Sandy package.
- Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn voted against a larger Sandy aid bill, saying it was full of “pork” and extraneous spending.
- At the heart of the debate is what should be included in a disaster-relief package.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, one of the most pressing congressional items moving forward will be federal aid for a recovery that is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars.
Congress is expected to pass a disaster-relief bill, helping to provide much-needed funding for the affected areas of Texas and Louisiana.
But Texas Republicans’ record on the disaster relief bill for Hurricane Sandy has drawn criticism and reignited old wounds in Congress this week as lawmakers prepare to address another round of hurricane-related damage.
Many Texas Republicans, most notably Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, voted against the disaster-relief bill designed to help with Sandy relief in 2013.
When reporters challenged Cruz about his vote over the past few days, he has defended himself, citing “unnecessary pork” provisions in the Sandy bill as the reasons for his opposition. In 2013, Cruz called the Sandy bill a “Christmas tree” with gifts for various lawmakers’ “pet projects.”
Cornyn has also said this week that he voted against the bill because it became filled with extraneous spending.
The Sandy relief bills
There were two bills aimed at relief in Sandy’s destructive wake. One was a smaller, $US9.7 billion bill to restock the coffers of the National Flood Insurance Program. This bill passed relatively easily, with just a voice vote in the Senate, but it was opposed by a handful of Republicans in the House, including eight Republicans from Texas.
The other, more controversial and larger package, eventually passed with a bit over $US50 billion in extra funding. The final passed version was smaller than the original Senate relief bill Cruz voted against, which requested just over $US60 billion in funding.
There were additional funds in the larger bill that did not address the immediate impact of the recovery effort. The Congressional Budget Office has found that nearly all of the funding was related to the storm or to prevent future disasters. But the debate has reopened this week about what exactly a disaster-relief bill should include.
National Review writer Theodore Kupfer argued in a piece shared widely by allies of the Texas Republicans that some additional funds in the Sandy bill were unrelated and addressed other disasters in states outside of the immediately affected areas.
“Much of the bundle of bacon that politicians squeezed into the Sandy relief bill had nothing to do with even the general category of hurricanes, much less Hurricane Sandy,” Kupfer wrote. “If anyone was cynically exploiting a natural disaster to score political points, it was not those who opposed the bill but those who designed it.”
In Cruz’s argument, the bill should have only been for Hurricane Sandy relief and dealing with its immediate effects. The other items constituted “pork,” he has said.
“The problem with that particular bill is it became a $US50 billion bill that was filled with unrelated pork. Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy,” he said in a recent NBC interview.
A short- or long-term fix?
Others have argued that a disaster-relief bill should be viewed not only as a short-term fix, but also as one that addresses the underlying and long-term issues that contributed to the disaster.
Scott Knowles, a professor at Drexel University who studies public policy responses to disasters, tweeted Monday that a large amount of the long-term funding in the Sandy bill was designed to recognise and prevent similar future disasters.
“Here’s the point — either you believe disaster relief is water bottles, sandbags, & shelters — OR you believe it is about reducing risk,” Knowles tweeted. “The ‘pork’ bill so derided by the House GOP in 2013 was a good first pass on addressing the infrastructures we need to reduce risk. Congress won’t appropriate funds for such a far-sighted approach, so we must wait to spend until after the disaster — that’s NOT ideal.”
For instance, one of the most scrutinised parts of the bill was an appropriation aimed at improving the weather data-gathering operation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Critics suggested this was an example of “pork” in the bill and should go in separate legislation, since it did not address the immediate concerns relating to Sandy relief. Proponents say improving those services would help with disaster preparedness for a storm exactly like Sandy.
‘1 bad turn doesn’t deserve another’
Cruz has used the Congressional Budget Office score on the bill to show that only 30% of the funds were projected to be spent in the first two years after the bill was passed.
The Washington Post reported, however, that some of the money would be doled out over time to adjust for the needs of various municipalities. For instance, some subway tunnel repairs in New York City related to Sandy aren’t getting underway until 2019.
Several lawmakers from the Northeast, including some Republicans, have expressed support for relief aid for Texas despite Cruz and others’ votes on the Sandy bill.
“Ted Cruz & Texas cohorts voted vs NY/NJ aid after Sandy but I’ll vote 4 Harvey aid. NY wont abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesn’t deserve another,” Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, tweeted Sunday.
Lawmakers have discussed the possibility of tying a Harvey relief bill to a broader funding package for the federal government or an increase in the debt ceiling. That would technically tie extraneous political concerns to legislation nominally designed to provide relief in the wake of the storm.