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The coming fight in Congress over Hurricane Harvey money, explained

Senators Leave Capitol Hill For Summer Break Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey isn’t just a major test for the millions of people in and around Houston whose homes are inundated. In the coming weeks, it will also present perhaps the country’s greatest public policy challenge since President Donald Trump’s was inaugurated.

How Congress handles that challenge — and if it completely screws it up — will have enormous consequences for the millions of Texans and Louisianans in the hurricane’s path.

The federal government goes through at least three discrete stages when responding to a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Harvey. Right now, we’re still in the first: the immediate search-and-rescue efforts.

“It’s the life-saving mode: Trying to save as many lives as possible,” said Larry Larson, senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

The second stage is the short-term recovery, which involves restoring power where possible and moving residents back into homes that are still habitable.

But then, Larson said, there’s the third and longest stage of disaster relief — the one in which federal and local government rebuild the infrastructure crippled by the hurricane, and try to get life as close to normal as possible.

“You’re going to see demands for billions and billions of dollars to rebuild,” Larson said. “So Congress is going to make a ton of huge decisions: Will they be smart about how they spend the money? Will they spend billions in a way that will force taxpayers to simply come back and spend it again in a few years? What will they get done?”

Here’s a guide to the three big tests Congress will face in responding to the hurricane — and how the legislative chamber might fall on its face spectacularly.

Test No. 1: Keeping the government funded

The first and most important test Congress will face is whether it can simply keep funding the federal agencies whose work is essential for repairing Houston.

FEMA, for instance, only has enough money to get through the end of September before running out of funding. Similarly, the National Flood Insurance Program needs to be reauthorized by September 30. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has documented, millions of Americans will effectively lose their flood insurance if Congress can’t get its act together in time to reauthorize, or temporarily extend, the program.

For months, the Trump administration and its allies in the Freedom Caucus have signaled their willingness to shut down the government if Congress does not agree to fund a border wall with Mexico. If that threat came to fruition, federal agencies like FEMA and the flood insurance program would be effectively crippled at the very moment they’re most needed.

Houston could change that calculus. Vice President Mike Pence promised to swiftly pass hurricane aid for Congress, with no mention of the wall, and it doesn’t seem likely that Congress and the White House would risk a government shutdown right now amid such a high-profile natural disaster. Politico’s Jake Sherman reported Tuesday that funding for Hurricane Harvey will likely be included in a bigger legislative aide package.

“I expect they will back off of the discussion about the debt limit or tying the shut down to the wall,” William Hoagland, a former GOP staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, told me. “I think that takes a real backseat to the situation [in Houston] ... The big picture is that this will put pressure on Congress and the president to make sure that the government does not shut down first of all, and that assistance continues.”

Still, we won’t know for sure until Congress comes back into session after Labor Day. Trump himself hasn’t promised to drop the shutdown threat. “I think it has nothing to do with it, really. This is separate — this is going to go very, very quickly,” Trump said at a press conference Monday with the president of Finland.

But if Trump does decide to link Harvey funding to the wall, then a federal aid package could have trouble getting enough Democratic votes to pass in Congress. “It makes no sense to tie this to an issue like the wall,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), who is also running for a Senate seat, told me Monday. “We can’t fix one part of Texas by ruining another part of it.”

Test No. 2: Getting the feds the money they need

Keeping the government open and funded is the bare minimum to expect from Congress after the Houston disaster. But Capitol Hill is also widely expected to take up an emergency “supplemental” funding bill that would send tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to help begin to repair the Texas coast using the Federal Relief Act, which allows the federal government to steer emergency cash to state governments hit by natural disasters.

The price tag could be huge. After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed several aid packages that together exceeded $110 billion. In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard near New York City, Congress approved upward of $50 billion. (For some perspective: The US government spends about $60 billion on housing every year for the entire country.)

“Every hurricane is different, but this one has similarities to Katrina,” Hoagland said. “Certainly the death rate now is much less, but the impact on total federal spending may wind up being very similar.”

The amount of federal money will largely be determined by FEMA and state teams that will go into the field, survey the damage, and write reports about what needs to be fixed and how much it may cost to fix it. Once those damage estimates are compiled, the executive branch will send Congress a spending bill to transfer federal money back to the states.

About 90 percent of this multi-billion-dollar aid package will likely go to restoring public infrastructure, according Larson, of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. If history is a guide, just 10 percent will likely go to helping private homeowners.

FEMA is far from the only federal agency that will require funding in the wake of the disaster. Among those that will likely seek billions of dollars in emergency temporary funding is the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education, as well as the US military. Schools will have to be repaired; bridges and roads will have to be rebuilt; electrical grids must be restored.

But in the past, getting emergency funding has meant overcoming political hurdles. Congressional Republicans — including nearly all of the Texas delegation — spent the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy insisting that any new funding for hurricane relief had to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The New York Daily News memorably accused then-Speaker John Boehner of stabbing the Statue of Liberty in the back, and Congress held up the package even while facing criticism from a Republican governor, Chris Christie (R-NJ).

This time, the story will likely end differently. In 2013, 23 of 24 House Republicans from Texas voted against the aid package for Sandy; some members of Texas’s Republican delegation, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), are signaling they’re unlikely to have similar reservations this time around. (Cruz complained about “unrelated spending” in the Hurricane Sandy bill, though the Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller has a convincing debunking of that explanation.)

Still, other potential fissures could complicate Congress’s plan to swiftly pass a big aid package for Texas. One challenges facing lawmakers is that some members will have legitimate grievances about not receiving enough funding to respond to disasters in their areas. They’ll use the crisis as an opportunity to fix that problem — which can then open the door for more and more requests than are manageable.

“‘Oh, there was a hurricane in Houston? Well, we had a tornado in Kansas a few years ago,’” Hoagland said, imagining what a lawmaker might say. “Then more and more things get tacked on like that, and congressional districts will say, ‘I want to take care of Houston, but I also want the funding that we were promised.’ That’s where things can really begin to break down.”

Test No. 3: Making sure the relief package isn’t counterproductive

If Congress can agree to send billions of dollars to Texas, then it will also face the test of making sure it does so in a way that’s tailored to address the underlying problems without exacerbating the likelihood of future flooding.

There are all manners of ways for a well-intentioned aid package to wind up getting little bang for its buck, experts said. In December 2016, for instance, Congress approved about $2 billion in aid for victims of flooding in Louisiana. Eight months later, much of the money hasn’t found its way into the hands of those who it was intended to help. The government created a lot of paperwork for recipients of aid, which discouraged them from applying.

“I don’t know if they’ve even spent half of it,” said Edward Richards, director of the Louisiana State University Climate Change Law and Policy Project. “People haven’t signed up for the program, and now there’s disaster-fatigue about dealing with the paperwork months later.”

Congress will wrestle with other public policy choices that could reshape the physical landscape of major cities. One will be whether it wants to really give residents of extremely flood-prone areas the money to rebuild in a location that could be underwater again in another few years. It’s a wrenching choice: Of course, everyone wants to help victims of a natural disaster return to their normal lives. But what if the price of normalcy is that history repeats itself?

“Every time you give people a pile of cash for something like this, you’re making sure they’ll be in the same place the next time it floods,” Richards said. “You could try structuring these programs to create powerful incentives for people to move. Or does Congress want to set up a blank check system for people who get flooded?”

Similarly, lawmakers took the step after Hurricane Sandy of mandating that anyone rebuilding infrastructure with taxpayers’ help had to build it at least one foot higher to prevent future flooding. It’s not clear how much interest Republicans will have in creating similar safeguards in their Hurricane Harvey legislation — President Trump’s White House revoked an executive order on flood risk regulations just a few days before Harvey hit.

“I would venture to say that a lot of the facilities damaged in Harvey have been rebuilt at least once, if not twice, with taxpayer dollars,” Larson said. “We need some better level of protection for these things, or we’ll be back to fixing them again in no time.”

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