After Harvey: A self-inflicted fiscal disaster in Washington?
Editor’s note: The following op-ed by CHN Executive Director Deborah Weinstein was originally published by The Hill on September 4. Urge Congress to fix disasters, not inflict them, by emailing your representative and senators today. For all the background you need on Congress’ list of do’s and don’ts for September, click here.
Search-and-rescue operations continue in Texas, and may soon be needed elsewhere, perhaps including the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Alabama and the Ohio Valley states of Kentucky and Tennessee.
But for those of us fearfully watching the developing humanitarian disaster from afar in Washington, D.C., the term “search and rescue” is about to take on a whole new meaning. Specifically: when Congress returns this week, will Harvey’s victims have to search for champions among congressional leadership to provide adequate funding to meet their needs? Will Congress and the Trump administration “rescue” these victims by providing the resources they need without cutting other essential programs or exacting other poison pill conditions?
We do not yet know the full scope of this disaster, but tens of thousands will lose their homes and millions will be deeply affected. The Trump administration and Congress will have to act to provide for housing, food, transportation, disease control and other needs.
President Trump has said there will be a swift response. But he has also claimed that action to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey is separate from his threat to shut down the federal government over funding for his border wall project. So we must ask: Will the president and some members of Congress compound the grimly real disaster now unfolding with a self-inflicted fiscal disaster? At a time of painful political divisions, we must now come together.
The only responsible approach for our leaders is to prevent the needless disasters of government shutdown, looming default on federal debt, and health insurance instability. Congress and the president must act on these urgencies by the end of September, by enacting legislation to provide at least temporary spending and debt limit extensions. They need to continue subsidies to stabilize health insurance costs and must extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
It remains to be seen whether some in Congress and the president will be responsible or reckless. At a time when the nation needs to focus on preventing loss of life, livelihood and community in the Gulf region, no one should be threatening shutdown or default. President Trump is certainly wrong to suggest that a government shutdown could be “separate” from efforts to respond to Harvey’s devastation. If government shuts down, Harvey’s victims will be on the front lines of those who would suffer. Efforts to find permanent, affordable housing, to rebuild roads and bridges, and for disease control and eradication could come to a grinding halt – and do we really want to see epidemics of Zika, dengue and West Nile sweep across East Texas and Louisiana, all because we can’t cough up the bucks to help local officials with mosquito population control?
And of the currently estimated 30,000 Texans who will need to be relocated (and that figure is certain to climb), who will answer the phone when dislocated seniors are trying to update their addresses so that they can continue to receive their monthly Social Security check? Who will be there to process new applications for Social Security Disability Income, perhaps for people whose conditions worsened during the storm? During previous shutdowns, these needs went unmet until the needless crisis was resolved.
To respond to the real disaster and prevent a self-inflicted one, President Trump must stop threatening a shutdown if the temporary spending bill does not include border wall funding. Members of the House Freedom Caucus must stop threatening to entangle the need to raise the limit on federal borrowing with drastic proposals to cut needed services. Unprecedented disaster in Texas and beyond means Congress and the president must at least maintain the federal capacity to serve our nation.
Of course, just maintaining current service levels is not enough. Times like these reveal people’s interconnected needs and how government meets them, such as requiring anti-flood protections, monitoring and preventing disease outbreaks, smoothly providing nutrition and health assistance, and assisting workers thrown out of work through no fault of their own.
Carrying out these vital functions will require a bipartisan agreement to increase current spending caps before final decisions are made about next year’s appropriations. But first, avoiding self-imposed disaster should allow Congress and the president to focus on meeting the new needs. According to various press reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has only about $2 – $3.3 billion available now to assist with the most immediate Harvey relief. Yet we know that damage from Harvey will stretch at least into the tens of billions of dollars. After all, look at Harvey’s older siblings: Katrina (and a botched government response) resulted in $160 billion in damage and Sandy caused about $70 billion.
Congress does not need to make decisions about the full response to Harvey by the end of September, but it should provide for a considerable increase in FEMA and other programs by then. Because this is an emergency, these increased costs do not have to fit under existing spending caps. They do not need to be paid for by cuts in other programs also important to Harvey’s victims, and to the rest of the nation. Trying to insist on offsetting emergency costs with cuts to other services would be another reckless act.
Trotting out ideological agenda items like slashing SNAP/food stamps, Medicaid, environmental protections, worker, immigrant or consumer rights as conditions for providing aid will send a clear message to the people of Texas, Louisiana and others who are in Harvey’s destructive path that their needs take a back seat to a set of right-wing talking points.
We must not go there. While a giant swath of the nation is facing life-threatening emergency conditions, Congress and the president stand at a precipice. They must step back from the ledge and complete at least the minimum work required to keep the government functioning and responding to emergency need.
Even what’s minimally necessary in September is a heavy lift for the currently dysfunctional Congress and Trump administration. That’s all the more reason why we should demand their responsible commitment to reject reckless demands to dismantle or cut programs, or to waste funds on a border wall.