"Life is what happens while you're making other plans." The folks living in Hurricane Harvey's path would certainly agree with that homey piece of wisdom. Harvey's havoc displaced thousands of families, disrupted millions of people, and by the time the bills all come in, will cost somewhere near $100 billion to recover from. And we haven't figured in the human tragedy of lives lost, dreams crushed and pain inflicted. Money alone won't fix that, but it will help, and we need to do what we can to help those in need.
The storm's impact will be felt for years in those parts of the country hit by it. And that includes Washington and the halls of Congress. When Congress returns from its extended summer vacation today, it will need to act on a long list of items. Disaster recovery will preempt discussion on many of them, among which are the debt ceiling, the budget, tax reform, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). These items are all tied together in a legislative Gordian Knot, and prior votes on relief for Hurricane Sandy will doubtless enter into the already-difficult discussions ahead.
To refresh your memory, in October 2012, Sandy popped up in much the same way as Harvey did, beginning as a Caribbean storm and becoming a Category 3 hurricane in three days. It slowly moved east, causing damage from Florida north to Canada. It stalled over warm waters east of New Jersey, and before moving on, the killer storm caused around $72 billion in damages, most of it in New York and New Jersey.
Congress, in January 2013, quickly provided $9.7 billion in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program. A second bill to provide relief to Sandy's victims was also passed that month, but not without dissent. The House vote was 241-180. In the Senate, the vote was 62-36 for passage. Only one Republican congressman and nine Republican Senators voted for the relief package. The Texas delegation, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, vehemently opposed the bill. Cruz justified his cold-hearted opposition with the charge that the $50 billion bill was mostly pork, a claim thoroughly refuted by the Congressional Research Services. Now, with Texas greatly in need of help, Cruz has changed his tune, pleading for quick action.
Congress will doubtless give bipartisan support to funding relief for Harvey's victims, but the debate will not go smoothly. Congressmen have long memories and are often slow to forgive. One week ago, Republican New York Congressman Peter King said of Cruz's opposition to relief for Sandy, "It was cruel, it was vicious, and something I'll never forget." He went on to say Cruz's obstruction was "a political ploy against the Northeast."
The White House wants to tie relief to a bill to raise the debt ceiling in order to avoid a bruising intraparty fight. But Freedom Caucus members, including Carroll County's Andy Harris, would rather have that fight over spending than to offer a "clean" debt ceiling bill — or a relief bill not accompanied by budget cuts. We can expect acrimonious debate on any proposal to fund relief — the amount of money to be allocated, what side issues are tied to this bill, and what steps the government will take to prevent future storms from becoming cataclysms.
If Congress stalls on a relief bill, it will affect some very real and urgent issues. The government will bump up against the debt ceiling around Sept. 29. CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, covers health costs for about 9 million needy kids. It will expire at the end of the month and needs to be reauthorized. Some conservatives will try to tie it to cuts in the Affordable Care Act. The federal budget also needs to be passed by then. Harvey's impact will be felt when emergency preparedness and funding levels for FEMA come up for discussion. These issues have always led to partisan squabbling. Nothing in today's fiercely divided political landscape suggests things will be any smoother.
Congress has just 12 working days this month to complete more than it has managed to do since Trump took office. Even without distractions, this is a heavy lift for Congress. If other emergencies come up — could North Korea do something dangerous? Might Hurricane Irma become a Category 5 monster and make landfall in the mid-Atlantic? Any of these would add pressure to a very difficult time. Let's hope we get a break from hurricanes this month, both political and meteorological. We need it.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at email@example.com.