Hurricane Harvey recovery could turn into a political firestorm

In a year of inaction in Washington, a relief package may get caught in the partisan gridlock.

People line up for food as others rest at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero
People line up for food as others rest at the George R. Brown Convention Center that has been set up as a shelter for evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

With at least 15 deaths reported, unprecedented flooding, and 30,000 people left homeless in the parts of Texas and Louisiana hit by Hurricane Harvey, officials are saying the recovery will require a massive amount of money and resources. In a different political environment, Congress would put other priorities aside to come together to pass a federal aid package that the president would immediately sign. The reality could be very different.

In a year marked by inaction in Washington, recovery legislation is in for a partisan battle.

When Congress comes back to the U.S. Capitol next week, lawmakers will get to work on a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded past October 1st. Including Harvey funding in the CR or other budget appropriations, which must pass quickly, would be an easy way to move the relief forward and ensure that it passes in the next month.

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But President Trump has vowed that he will veto any CR that does not including funding for a border wall, even if it causes a government shutdown. On Monday, during a press conference in which he addressed the hurricane, he doubled down on his threat. “It has nothing to do with it,” Trump said, not understanding that his wall threat could derail disaster relief. “I think this is separate. This is going to go very, very quickly. Everybody feels the same way I do.”

Trump could use the disaster as an importunity to force Congress to vote on a bill with wall funding. It wouldn’t be the first time he used the disaster to score political points. But as federal budget expert Stan Collender wrote in Forbes, that plan could backfire.

“House and Senate Democrats almost certainly see this coming and are likely to announce very soon — perhaps even this week — that they insist that the hurricane relief funds be in a standalone bill rather than the CR and that this bill not include anything other than aid for Harvey victims,” he wrote.

Even a standalone bill could be contentious and turn into a partisan battle as it did in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. After that storm, a vast majority of Republicans in both chambers — including both of Texas’ senators and 20 of its House members — voted against the final $50 billion federal aid package for Sandy. They claimed the package was “filled with pork,” an argument we could hear again in the coming weeks.

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Republicans could also insist, as they did after Sandy, that Congress make spending cuts elsewhere to account for the aid package. “Emergency bills like this should not come to the floor without offsets to pay for it or structural reforms,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) said after that disaster. Needless to say, both parties are unlikely to agree on budget cuts.

Given the unpredictability in Washington, it’s possible that the hurricane will actually help Congress find a way out of its fiscal crisis. But an aid package won’t be the only disaster-related issue Congress will have to grapple with in the next month. The Federal Flood Insurance Program, which is almost $25 billion in debt, expires this year and lawmakers disagree on a long-term renewal.

Any kind of agreement is unlikely in Washington these days. And as the Washington Posted noted, the recovery effort will test whether Trump can “suspend his adversarial governing style and even postpone his own agenda, notably an overhaul of the tax code” for the sake of the tens of thousands of hurricane victims.