The shutdown fallout may have handed Democrats an unpleasant start to their new House majority. But it also created a fresh opportunity for political victory on a bigger, broader disaster aid package that could hit the House floor in the coming weeks.
Billions are needed to rebuild after recent hurricanes, floods, fires and other natural disasters that ravaged the U.S. in 2018, such as Hurricanes Florence and Michael; mudslides and fires in California, including the Camp Fire that razed the town of Paradise, Calif.; floods and tornadoes that ripped across various parts of the nation; volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and a major earthquake in Alaska; and typhoons that devastated Pacific island nations and territories ranging from the Philippines to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
And Puerto Rico is still waiting for more aid to cope with the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria in 2017; the island territory estimates it needs $600 million to stave off reduced nutrition benefits for about 1.4 million residents when the money runs out in March.
House Republicans included $7.8 billion in disaster aid in a stopgap measure running through Feb. 8 that also tacked on $5.7 billion for border security as President Donald Trump requested. But that package fell flat in the Senate, precipitating the current shutdown of approximately 25 percent of government agency funding for day-to-day operations and services.
Republicans’ effort to acknowledge disaster needs was met with insults from Democrats, who called the package inadequate. During House floor debate, Democrats called for at least $1 billion more for agricultural and nutrition assistance programs alone, including the Puerto Rico request, on top of the $1.5 billion Republicans already included to compensate growers for crop losses, forest restoration and watershed protection.
The Pentagon would get $882 million under the GOP proposal to repair hurricane-related damages along the East Coast, particularly Florida and North Carolina. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said it wasn’t nearly enough, and that the big border appropriation ought instead to go toward repairing hurricane-ravaged military facilities and equipment, such as Tyndall Air Force Base in her home state of Florida and several F-22 Raptors stationed there.
“The disaster supplemental funds in this bill are designed to be a sweetener but aren’t even enough to give us a toothache,” said Wasserman Schultz, who will likely take over the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee when the panel formally organizes for the 116th Congress.
Evan Hollander, spokesman for House Appropriations Democrats, said the panel will introduce a larger disaster package in the House soon.
“Beginning a new Congress with a government shutdown is an unprecedented situation, so Democrats are utilizing our limited time on opening day to reopen the government,” Hollander said, adding that the committee “will bring up a comprehensive disaster package in the coming weeks.”
Added Hollander: “Unlike House Republicans’ inadequate proposal, it will include resources to begin meeting the needs of Americans affected by recent natural disasters.”
Puerto Rico food aid
During floor debate Dec. 20, incoming House Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York said the GOP’s $7.8 billion proposal “fails to meet the urgent needs of disaster victims,” singling out for particular attention the unfunded Puerto Rico nutrition needs.
The root of Puerto Rico’s food benefit problems stem from a block grant program that is typically capped at $2 billion a year. Lawmakers addressed additional needs in the wake of Hurricane Maria by throwing an extra $1.27 billion into the program in Oct. 2017, making the funds available to more needy beneficiaries.
Puerto Rico’s governor has requested $600 million to keep the program running as part of a new tranche of hurricane aid for the country, estimated to keep nutrition funds flowing for another six months while a longer-term fix is discussed. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a Democrat, wrote to lawmakers Nov. 19 outlining his requests, and followed it up with White House and Capitol Hill visits on Dec. 13, including with top Democratic appropriators in both chambers and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that some 1.3 million Puerto Rico residents could see reduced benefits when the current batch of funds runs out in late February or early March, and the Puerto Rican government estimates 153,000 residents could lose benefits altogether.
Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, cited the lackluster aid package as a primary reason for his “no” vote on the stopgap.
He called the disaster figure “token disaster relief for rural communities and farmers in Middle and Southwest Georgia that were devastated by Hurricane Michael and other disasters that occurred in 2018.”
Pecan losses, crop insurance
Bishop went on to list a number of other funding needs, including the $600 million for Puerto Rico plus the following:
- Up to $150 million had been under discussion in disaster funding for “impacted rural communities,” Bishop said, compared to $8 million that made it into the GOP bill.
- Boosting reimbursements from 85 percent to 90 percent for those with federal crop insurance policies, and from 65 percent to 70 percent for those without insurance.
- A higher $480 million appropriation for forest restoration, more than double the $200 million in the underlying bill.
- A lower threshold for reimbursement to farmers suffering pecan tree mortality, which refers to the percentage of planted trees a farmer lost from a natural disaster. Bishop wants the threshold percentage to be lowered from 15 percent to 7.5 percent. That lower percentage threshold had been the subject of a special $15 million appropriation to pay out pecan losses for the 2017 calendar year.
- Increase the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Disaster Nutrition Assistance program funding level from $8.5 million to $9.3 million, to cope with the impact of Typhoon Yutu.
- In addition, Pelosi’s home-state Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein — a senior appropriator — and Kamala Harris — a potential 2020 presidential candidate — have asked for as much as $9 billion in wildfire recovery funds alone. The House GOP disaster package contains only a small down payment on that ask, or $720 million. So the package could yet grow further, including when it eventually reaches the Senate.
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