By Michael Conathan
Next week the Senate is expected to take up and pass the House’s version of a disaster relief package for areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, which passed on January 15. The relief has been a long time coming: It has been nearly three months since the superstorm devastated coastlines from Maryland to Massachusetts.
First, action was stalled by November’s election, and then House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring a Senate-passed bill to a vote before the clock ran out on the 112th Congress, prompting highly critical responses even from members of his own party, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), and Rep. Peter King (R-NY). Their anger was justified: By comparison, it took Congress just days to send emergency funding to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
But chronology and delays aside, the bill has plenty of flaws in its content as well. In particular, for a package intended to help coastal communities rebuild, it is remarkably light on funding for the federal agency most closely linked to our coastal communities: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The House disaster relief legislation actually came in two parts—an initial $17 billion outlay, which was then amended by adding a subsequent $33.7 billion package offered by Rep. Rodney Freylinghausen (R-NJ). His initial proposal wasn’t all bad for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It included $476 million for the agency—just a bit less than the $486 million in the Senate-passed bill and the $493 million requested by the Obama administration. But after the House voted on amendments to Freylinghausen’s bill, the agency’s funding fell to just $326 million.
In the wake of a storm that shifted sands and wrecked infrastructure from Maryland to Massachusetts, rebuilding and even reconceiving management of coastal landscapes must be a priority. In fact, about 80 percent of the money the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requested for Sandy relief was for coastal restoration and land acquisition.
After the Senate passed its bill, which included $150 million for coastal restoration and another $47 million for land acquisition under the Coastal and Estuarine Lands Conservation Program, Rep. Freylinghausen put $150 million into his bill for coastal restoration efforts. But instead of following the lead of the Senate and funneling the money through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs, he eliminated all funding for land acquisition and designated the restoration funding specifically for “regional ocean partnerships”—collaborative coalitions of neighboring states that help coordinate and streamline management of their shared ocean space and resources.
So now, unless the Senate opts to delay the bill’s passage further by amending it and sending it back over to the House, the Sandy relief package that lands on President Obama’s desk will include not a penny for the programs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified as its highest priorities.
Rep. Freylinghausen’s decision to reallocate the Senate’s $150 million landed this funding squarely in the crosshairs of a coalition of Republicans who have made great political hay by lambasting the Obama adminstration’s National Ocean Policy, implemented by executive order in 2010. And despite the fact that many of these organizations were actually created during the Bush administration, regional ocean partnerships have come to be viewed as an integral part of President Obama’s ocean priorities.
Many regions of the country—including the Northeast and mid-Atlantic areas affected by Sandy—are energized and eager to participate in these partnerships. And granting the money to these bodies would actually give states a greater say in how their coastal restoration funds were spent. Yet despite this clear desire on the part of the states to participate in such programs, conservatives in Congress, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), have made the National Ocean Policy a poster child for government overreach. Conveniently ignoring their well-established commitment to states’ rights, Hastings and his allies falsely decry the National Ocean Policy as a bogeyman likely to spawn “job-killing regulations” rather than an opportunity for states to play a greater role in managing their own affairs.
Playing right along, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), whose amendment successfully stripped funding for the National Ocean Policy from the House version of a 2013 appropriations bill, filed an amendment to the Sandy relief bill proposing to eliminate all funding for the regional ocean partnerships. His amendment passed overwhelmingly—though advocates for the National Ocean Policy should take some consolation that his margin of victory was 23 votes smaller this time around.
Whether by ignorance, hubris, or calculated machinations, Rep. Freylinghausen’s decision to peg this funding to the regional ocean partnerships ensured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would not receive a dime of funding to restore shorelines devastated by superstorm Sandy.
With Senate passage of the House version of this legislation all but assured, it appears the window has closed for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to receive any additional funding for coastal restoration. And that is a financial and environmental disaster adding insult to injury in a region desperate for relief.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.