Disaster Relief: What Can Be Done Better Next Time
June 1 marked the beginning of hurricane season, and as we prepare to face this year’s inevitable natural disasters, many Americans are still waiting to receive federal aid to recover from last season’s devastation.
Disaster relief historically has never been a partisan issue. Unfortunately, it turned into one over the last eight months.
Despite Democrats pushing for poison pill proposals, President Trump was able to break through the gridlock, and the House and Senate found consensus on a bipartisan disaster relief package on May 23.
The Senate passed this compromise relief bill the very same day. Now, this week, the U.S. House of Representatives will send it to the President’s desk.
This package contains $19.1 billion of disaster relief, including $605 million for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program, $300 million for additional Community Development Block Grants for Puerto Rico, $3.2 billion to rebuild military bases like Tyndall Air Force Base and Camp Lejeune, $3.3 billion for flood damage repair, and $3 billion for agriculture losses. Additionally, California will be eligible to receive more than $8 billion in assistance for wildfire recovery.
Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, deserve credit for their diligent work in shepherding this process.
However, the fact that it took 237 days for Congress to pass a disaster relief bill after Hurricane Michael is beyond embarrassing. Self-interested politicians have made a mockery of one of their primary responsibilities.
Other disaster aid bills were not held up like this. Within ten days of Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed supplemental disaster relief funding. After Hurricane Harvey, it took 15 days. Even after Hurricane Sandy, which sparked substantial debate, Congress passed a supplemental funding bill 74 days later.
Most of the delay was caused by partisan demands from Democrats for additional aid for Puerto Rico following 2017 hurricanes – even though the island is already eligible to receive $91 billion to recover from these storms. That’s three times more funding than Texas was eligible to receive for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and nearly double what was appropriated for Hurricane Sandy in 2013.
President Trump agreed to support additional aid for Puerto Rico in order to pass a disaster relief bill as soon as possible. However, Democrats and Republicans could not find consensus on the level of funding. There was also a disagreement over border humanitarian funds.
After Senators Shelby and Leahy finally came to an agreement with the House on May 23, Senator Shelby and I called the President. The President agreed to break the logjam by supporting a clean disaster relief bill.
Within hours of Trump’s decision, the compromise bill passed the Senate 85-8. The House could have passed the bill by unanimous consent the very next day. Instead, it was blocked by three Republicans in a pathetic attempt to grandstand and get their names in national headlines.
The last eight months have been the height of partisan politics. Never again should we allow the American people to fall prey to Washington’s intransigence.
There are three actions Congress should take right now to ensure that the federal government can indeed take care of its people in times of crisis:
Establish a reserve fund. Most families and businesses set aside contingency funds in case of emergency, and Congress should do the same. We should expand eligibility criteria for natural disasters in Congress’ existing relief fund, so we’re prepared when disaster strikes and don’t have to rely on supplemental appropriations bills.
Cut red tape. Federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing & Urban Development are responsible for disbursing disaster relief funds after it’s allocated by Congress. Each agency has to go through an arduous rulemaking process before any funds can be released. This can often take months. We need to streamline the process so communities get relief in a timely manner, while providing sufficient oversight.
Fix the funding process. Our national debt topped $22 trillion this year. That’s a full-blown crisis. Because of Washington’s inability to get its financial house in order, we are losing the ability to do the right thing. Every dime of this relief package is borrowed money. We need to tackle this debt crisis and responsibly fund the federal government on time so we can help the American people when they are counting on us most.
It’s time for both sides of the aisle to come together, learn from the past, and prove to the American people that we have their backs.
United States Senator David Perdue is the junior senator from Georgia and a former Fortune 500 CEO. He serves on the Armed Services, Budget, Agriculture, and Banking Committees.