Stephanie Grace: Congress has a kumbaya moment

Tuesday’s U.S. House debate over a measure to stem crippling premium increases for federal flood insurance customers was kind of amazing to watch, what with all the Democrats thanking Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others who took part in the negotiations, including Louisiana Reps. Bill Cassidy and Steve Scalise, and Republicans lauding Democrats such as California Rep. Maxine Waters, one of the authors of the bill that was being amended, and local Rep. Cedric Richmond.

From all appearances, it was amazing to participate in as well. Lawmakers from both parties seemed as surprised as anyone to be sending heartfelt congratulations across the aisle and justifiably pleased with themselves for having put aside their differences to pass meaningful legislation. In today’s bitterly divided Congress, particularly in the House, these sorts of things just don’t happen.

Kind of makes you wonder: Can it happen again?

It would be even more amazing to think that the answer’s yes, that the country’s lawmakers have broken down barriers, learned to work with rather than demonize one another, developed a taste for getting things done. To believe that the ideologically rigid forces that so often prevent action can be overcome on other issues, too, just as Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling of Texas was sidelined when House leaders used a procedural maneuver to take the flood insurance measure directly to the floor. Hensarling dutifully snarled his disapproval during the debate, but he was drowned out by the loud chorus of kumbaya that preceded the decisive 306-91 vote.

Sadly, though — and please pardon the analogy — the flood insurance fix seems to be the result of a perfect storm of circumstances rather than a general change of heart.

Unlike some issues, this one was neither abstract nor distant. The steep hikes that were originally adopted to make the program sustainable directly hit major industries, particularly banking and real estate, as well as enough homeowners to get politicians’ attention. Saddling homes with huge increases if they sold would have destroyed individuals’ equity and devastated entire markets.

Given dramatic weather events in recent years, it wasn’t regional. During the debate, politician after politician from New York and New Jersey reminded everyone that it’s been 16 months since Superstorm Sandy, just as coastal lawmakers continue to invoke Katrina, Rita and other hurricanes.

And there was a clear political benefit to getting this done — in states like Florida, where flood insurance has become an unexpectedly potent issue in a hotly contested special election, and of course, in Louisiana.

It’s worth noting here that both Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and Cassidy, her Republican challenger this fall, are expected to make flood insurance a major campaign plank. Landrieu was a key proponent of a Senate bill that would have delayed the new rates for four years while an affordability study is conducted, which passed in January 67-32. Although House leadership refused to bring it up for a vote, the numbers clearly created pressure to do something. Neither Landrieu nor Cassidy was listed by name on either measure — probably so that their presence wouldn’t deter the other side — but each party obviously wanted to give its candidate a win.

It’s hard to think of another area where all these factors might come together, where the interests seeking help are as politically powerful, where the argument for government action to redistribute risk would overcome objections from the powerful tea party Republicans like Hensarling. Scalise made a point of casting the solution as a conservative one that would help spur privatization of flood insurance. That’s a nice idea, but remember that government’s involved in the first place because private industry wanted no part of it. This remains, at bottom, a rebuke to the harsh philosophy that everyone’s on his or her own.

And it’s hard to think of another issue where rival candidates would come together, work toward a common purpose and celebrate their joint accomplishment.

In fact, despite the good news, a visible strain remains, at least between Louisiana’s Senate candidates.

After some initial skepticism, Landrieu last week endorsed the House bill and said she’d help push it in the Senate. But during a conference call with reporters, she repeatedly emphasized how long she’d been pushing the issue, pointed out areas where she thinks the House bill doesn’t go as far as she’d like — in setting a goal that premiums shouldn’t top one percent of a home’s value, rather than a hard limit, for example — and heaped credit upon Cantor, Waters and Richmond while barely mentioning Cassidy’s name.

Cassidy’s campaign, meanwhile, issued a fundraising letter touting the bill’s passage and warning that “our opponents will try and claim credit for our work protecting Louisiana families,” so “please make a contribution so we can get the message out!”

Now that sounds more like the Congress we know.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.