Washington Watch for Jan. 20, 2013

Relief package a storm itself

by jordan blum

Advocate Washington bureau

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

As the U.S. House vote loomed last week for the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief package, Republicans and Democrats from Northeastern states spent a lot of time calling for national unity and criticizing members from hurricane-vulnerable states if they voted against the aid.

“To my colleagues who are from states who have had disasters, some rather recently, who’ve decided that we need to change the rules of the game: Shame on you,” said U.S Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.

U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., called for national unity and to treat all Americans who need help equally.

“We’re not voting as Republicans or Democrats,” Grimm said. “We’re not voting as individuals. We’re voting as Americans.”

The argument they were making was that representatives from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that have been ravaged by storms, like Hurricane Katrina, would be hypocrites if they voted against the Sandy aid.

At the end of the night, the Louisiana U.S. House delegation ended up split in half on the $50 billion aid package. U.S. Reps. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, voted for it while Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; John Fleming, R-Minden; and Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, opposed it. Although the legislation easily passed, a majority of Republicans still voted against it.

The argument against the aid package was that the legislation included too many long-term mitigation dollars and too many community development block grant funds that lack specifics on how they will be spent.

The opponents originally claimed the U.S. Senate version of the bill — both U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., voted for it — had too much so-called “pork” spending. So those dollars were stripped out of the House bill, including dollars that would’ve gone to disaster-damaged Gulf Coast fisheries.

As one of the biggest fiscal conservatives on opposing increasing the federal debt, Fleming’s vote against the Sandy aid was the most predictable. He simply didn’t want to vote for anything that didn’t include budget offsets elsewhere in the federal government. Fleming was the only member of the delegation to also vote against nearly $10 billion in Sandy-related national flood insurance funds.

The opposing argument against Fleming by Landrieu and others is that the aftermath of a disaster is not the time to hold the victims hostage by forcing cuts in other parts of the federal government.

It should be noted that Fleming is considering a Senate run against Landrieu in 2014.

Scalise’s opposition was different in that he comes from the New Orleans area that has obviously seen its share of hurricane damage. But he also fits into the deficit hawk category and he now chairs the staunchly conservative Republican Study Committee, so his vote wasn’t particularly surprising either. Scalise noted that he did support the $10 billion in flood insurance and the first $17 billion in the $50 billion package.

Cassidy, who also is deciding on a Senate run in 2014, was a bigger mystery before he ultimately decided to oppose it. Cassidy said he had “incredibly mixed emotions” and voted against it because of his concerns about the lack of transparency in some of the spending.

Boustany, who also could’ve gone either way, voted for the aid package because he noted Congress was there for Louisiana after Katrina and now it was time to do so for the Northeast.

Going back to Fleming though, he did succeed in adding an amendment to cut nearly $10 million from the aid package that was dedicated to seawall and coastal restoration projects for the islands in the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge that spans 70 miles of Connecticut coastline.

Fleming, who chairs the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, said the islands are uninhabited by humans except for university research teams a few months a year, and that the funding does not count as emergency support.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., angrily called it a “vindictive amendment” against one state. The refuge has lots of endangered species and serves as a migratory stop for many birds, DeLauro said. The islands help protect Connecticut, she said, and are suffering from erosion problems.

“It’s a terrible precedent for disaster aid,” she said, noting that Louisiana received $74 million in wildlife refuge funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address jblum@theadvocate.com.