American citizens in Puerto Rico are suffering, but unlike when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the victims can’t drive across the border to a welcoming state like Arkansas. Texans, Floridians and others are hurting from hurricanes, too, and Californians have lost their homes due to wildfires.
In such situations, should members of Congress vote for any aid package, even if they think it’s a bad one?
Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas, said no last week. The congressman who represents central Arkansas was one of only 69 members of the U.S. House who voted against a bill providing $36.5 billion for relief and recovery efforts after Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires. The package drew a yes vote from 353 members.
Hill explained his opposition in letters to Speaker Paul Ryan and to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and in an interview Sunday. He says a military-run joint task force should aid Hurricane Maria’s victims in Puerto Rico, as was done after Katrina. The bill adds $8 billion to the Community Development Block Grant program, which after Katrina couldn’t account for $700 million. Included in the package is $16 billion in debt relief for the National Flood Insurance Program, which has fallen $30 billion in debt since Katrina and other hurricanes struck in 2005. Did you know that while most flood insurance is sold and marketed through private insurers, it’s actually a government program? Taxpayers subsidize homeowners who build and rebuild homes, including expensive vacation homes, in areas likely to flood.
“I know what needs to be done, and I know how important the federal government’s role is in rebuilding the state resources and private resources, but we have to do it right and we have to do it thoughtfully for the best outcome in the long run,” Hill told me.
When disasters happen, the easiest – and most politically expedient – thing for members of Congress to do is to vote for whatever aid package is presented them without asking too many questions. Some lawmakers who voted against the $50.5 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill in 2013 have been reminded by Hurricane Harvey, and their critics, that you never know if your constituents will be the next catastrophe’s victims.
But Hill is correct that the United States needs a thoughtful approach. We taxpayers should do whatever is needed to help our fellow Americans restart their lives. But this bill is only a down payment. Moody’s Analytics estimates Hurricanes Harvey and Irma resulted in $150-$200 billion in property damages in Texas and Florida, about what Katrina cost. And that’s not counting Puerto Rico. So we need to do this right.
At the same time, if we’re going to spare no expense, it should be our expense, not our children’s and grandchildren’s. The $36.5 billion appropriation would not be offset by other spending cuts or tax increases, so it would be added to the national debt, now $20 trillion or $61,000 for every American. Borrowing money from future generations to meet today’s emergency needs isn’t charity or compassion – it’s theft. Let’s pay for this ourselves rather than stick them with part of the bill.
The even bigger picture is this. Major American population centers have been hit by disasters in recent years, and yet we always seem to be surprised. More people live in bigger cities in more vulnerable areas than at any time in human history, and those cities will only become bigger and more vulnerable. Those not at risk of hurricanes, like Arkansans, can fall victim to earthquakes or tornadoes.
It’s only a matter of time before an even bigger disaster hits, perhaps even a civilization-changing one, so we’d better be prepared. Instead of a $20 trillion national debt, we should have a surplus with a savings account dedicated to the Next Big One.
Such a savings account would occur only by making hard choices, which is especially challenging in this political environment. But squirrels, who have brains the size of a walnut, know to store nuts before the winter. Surely we humans can figure something out.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.