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The Emergency Bill That Lacked An Emergency

When rushing disaster relief through Congress, remember to “measure twice, cut once.”

As construction workers and volunteers rebuild the structures destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, they will do well to remember the old rule “measure twice, cut once.” Despite the histrionics of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others, Congress was wise to keep those words in mind as well.

After it emerged from a marathon debate over the fiscal cliff, the House of Representatives was scheduled to immediately take up a $60.4 billion storm relief package. As the final hours of the 112th Congress approached, however, House Speaker John Boehner decided that the bill could be better addressed when more time was available to devote to it.

The scheduling move sparked an intense backlash, most notably from Christie, whose state was hit hard by the storm. Brimming with emotion, Christie accused Boehner and other Republican leaders of treating his state’s citizens as political pawns.

While the 112th Congress never did take up an emergency spending measure, lawmakers passed a stopgap $9.7 billion package during the first few days of the 113th Congress; President Obama signed that bill this week. The rest of the proposed spending will come to a vote later this month. Christie, however, has continued to criticize the House for not voting on the original bill. “New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display,” he said.

I understand Christie’s emotion. It has been a difficult winter for those hit by the storm, and if beach communities that depend on tourism are not fully rebuilt before Memorial Day, it will be a difficult summer for them as well. As Christie pointed out, Sandy victims have waited far longer for an aid package than other victims of recent natural disasters have. It has been more than two months since Sandy. By contrast, Congress passed an aid bill less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Of course, those in Washington have not been simply sitting idly, staring at the White House’s Sandy appropriation request. Days after the storm, there was a divisive presidential election. Since then, Congress, and in particular the Republican-controlled House, has engaged in a historic practical and philosophical struggle with the reelected president over the role, scope and cost of government.

These other concerns would still be no excuse if storm victims were suffering immediate harm as a result of the lack of an aid bill or if passing the bill was a simple matter. Neither of these things is the case.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said it still has enough funds to last until at least early spring. The only truly time-sensitive problem was that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) needed a cash infusion to pay claims. The $9.7 billion bill satisfied that need.

The larger spending package will address a far wider range of issues. In a much publicized example, the original bill included money for Alaska fisheries – all of which safely avoided the brunt of the storm more than 4,000 miles away. More significantly, nearly half of the money requested in the original bill was intended to mitigate the effects of future disasters, not to repair existing damage.

It’s possible that Alaska fisheries were deeply affected by environmental and economic disruptions related to the storm and should thus receive compensation. It’s also possible that the future-oriented spending is well-planned and necessary. Neither of those things, however, is self-evident. Especially in the wake of a tax bill that simultaneously increased taxes and government spending, there is no reason that the comprehensive, long-term response to Sandy should not be the subject of discussion and debate.

The specific circumstances surrounding the scheduled vote on the original aid bill made this sort of discussion impossible. Because the congressional session was about to end, there was no time for the Senate to consider any possible House amendments. If the bill had come to a vote, the only options were to take it or leave it. None of the important details of how to address a complex situation in a cost-effective way could have been considered.

As for Christie’s argument that Congress managed a swifter response to Katrina, I would respond first that Congress had more time available then for discussion and, second, that it probably should have taken even more time than it did. In all, the federal government devoted around $85 billion to recovery from Katrina, with $62.3 billion of that coming from the initial bill passed in the immediate aftermath of the storm. According to later Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits, an unknown but significant share of that money was misspent.

A number of personal and political factors may have fed into Christie’s response. He may have felt his party owed him, and his state, the money in return for his previous support. He was a tireless fundraiser for Republicans nationwide during the recent election. He also stood up to the Obama administration and its free-spending ways when he rejected a proposed trans-Hudson tunnel in 2010 – though his primary motive then was to spare his state’s taxpayers, not to protect the federal Treasury. When his party failed to deliver the hoped-for funds, Christie may have seen the move as spiteful retaliation for his praise of President Obama’s response to Sandy in the days before the election.

I suspect, though, that the deepest issue was simply the pull of emotion in the face of disaster. When destruction hits, it is easy to see the biggest, fastest possible monetary reaction as a sign of caring, and anything less as callous indifference. While it is important to meet urgent needs quickly, setting aside a giant hunk of money all at once is not usually the smartest approach for the long haul. Our goals ought to be to give disaster victims assurance that they will be helped while also assuring the rest of the country that tax dollars will be well-used.

Figuring out how to do this won’t be easy, and it will take time. But few carpenters have ever regretted being too slow with their measuring tapes; many have regretted being too quick with their saws.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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Lisa Gentes-Hunt (Editor) January 11, 2013 at 05:51 PM
For the victims without homes, paying for mortgages & rent, dealing with mold, cleanup & who've lost all their possessions, hoping they get the 2nd bill passed ASAP and money freed up for the victims to start rebuilding their lives.
Mike Valenti January 12, 2013 at 03:09 PM
Larry, You are spot-on, both politically and fiscally. Washington needs to work together with precision and expedience to trim ALL the fat (pork) from this bill - like a team of veteran butchers - to get a "leaner" bill passed. And Gov. Christie has lost a tremendous amount of political capital in the past few months between his endorsement of Obama just prior to the election and his reaction to this bill.
Watchdog January 12, 2013 at 03:16 PM
Bush acted quickly to approve funding while Obama waited. Yet Obama gets off scot free. Crooked corrupted press. http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/2083863902001/governments-response-to-katrina-vs-sandy
Watchdog January 12, 2013 at 03:18 PM
Why did Obama wait so long, Lisa? http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/2083863902001/governments-response-to-katrina-vs-sandy
jeff meyer January 12, 2013 at 03:26 PM
There should be absolutely no "add on's" (pork) to the SANDY relief bill. It is disgusting that this process is business as usual for Congress and accepted as the norm. Congress should stop playing politics with the lives of people who have had their lives destroyed by SANDY. Jeff Meyer Tuckahoe, NY
Ann Fanizzi January 12, 2013 at 04:51 PM
To hold up a $60 billion dollar Sandy relief bill which residents of three states are desperately needing for what has been termed as "pork" but which according to reports were items agreed upon but without funding, is vindictive and petty and again shows that the Republican members of Congress lack all sense of judgment, if not, compassion. It was a bonehead move.
Walden Macnair January 12, 2013 at 05:01 PM
Jeff, The relief bill they failed to vote on was a page and half long and had no pork in it at all. This was the irresponsibility of Speaker Boner and his ilk who thought it was more important for them to get home for the holidays than it was for people to actually have homes for the holidays. . Congressman King (Republican) from Long Island said it correctly when he said that anyone who lives in the Northeast and votes for a republican congressman is just plain stupid. This inaction is still ongoing and is totally unforgivable.
Concerned Citizen January 12, 2013 at 05:01 PM
This would seem a good opportunity for all the Northeast Republicans to switch en masse to either Independents or Democrats. Since the Republicans have taken over the house in 2010 they have done absolutely nothing but obstruct progress. They are the most unproductive congress in the history of our union. All this Obama hating, when in reality Obama has done a tremendous job in turning this country around from the brink of a second depression. People forget so quickly that just a few short years ago we were days away from not even being able to withdraw money from ATM's. republicans from gulf states that voted for Katrina relief voted against this bill. It is shameful. More than a million more people voted democrat for congress across the country but congress stayed republican due to "gerrymandering". Absolute shameful the state of affairs.
Concerned Citizen January 12, 2013 at 05:16 PM
And you people that watch Fox "News" for your information are all fools. Rupert Murdoch (Along with the likes of Rush Limbaugh) are two of the biggest threats to our country) constantly spewing out nothing but hatred and misinformation, and sitting back gleefully watching our country be in a constant state of fear,insecurity and flux. Almost the same type of "content" as the show "Doomsday Preppers", who obviously get most of their information from Fox "News" I watch Fox News from time to time, but I watch it the same way I watch the Baboons at the Bronx Zoo attack and rape each other (that's just the males). In a sort of fascination combined with disgust with the primordial state in which they exist.
Ann Fanizzi January 12, 2013 at 05:17 PM
Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats opposed an independent commission to draw district lines. We will be having this mess for the next decade.
Jaques Strape January 12, 2013 at 06:44 PM
And CNN, The Journal News, and New York Times are truthful in their reporting as well?
Concerned Citizen January 12, 2013 at 08:14 PM
Actually CNn and the NYT are quite a good sorce of truthfull information. Fox is a bunch of hateful and extremely biased garbage. But this is a free country, so feel free to watch whatever garbage you want.
Teleman January 12, 2013 at 09:03 PM
LOFL, any post that starts out with "you people" is bound to be a display of utmost intelligence. Have you ever watched the white house propaganda arms known as CNN and msnbc? Great stuff glad you're concerned.
Teleman January 12, 2013 at 09:05 PM
You must have missed cnn the other night when they were talking about shooting Alex Jones, that piers morgan is a bastion of truth and civility. If you don't see the bias in cnn, times or msnbc, then you're a lost cause.
Jeff January 12, 2013 at 09:17 PM
LOL Watchdog. Criticism from a Fox station. That is like listening to GOP criticism from MSNBC!
Richard Kavesh January 12, 2013 at 09:28 PM
The fact of the matter is that all news organizations are biased. The real question isn't: "on which side?" but "to what extent?" Anyone taking an objective look at The New York Times, MSNBC, Fox News, or CNN (just to mention the ones in this thread) can clearly see that Fox is the most biased of the bunch. I have no objections to its wacko hosts like O'Reilly and Hannity expressing their opinions, but what makes Fox truly nefarious is that it makes little if any attempt to facts from opinions in allegedly "straight" news coverage and gives publicity to fringe stories by simply reporting controversies that aren't true (Obama birthplace, Obama religion, polls that are biased unless they show a Republican winning, that a genuine controversy over global warming exists, etc.). MSNBC is not in the straight news business. The others are, or are supposed to be.
Teleman January 12, 2013 at 10:18 PM
If you really want to see the state of the media, look at the past 4 years of obama press conferences ( what few there were ) and with the exception of Jake Tapper from ABC, this pres has never really been question by the media. They do seem to carry a lot of his water though.

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