WASHINGTON — Congress reached a deal on the “fiscal cliff,” but in doing so the House canceled a vote for Hurricane Sandy disaster aid.
The approval process for money to help victims of the October storm, which came ashore in the heavily populated mid-Atlantic and northeastern sections of the country, has been drawn out much longer than the federal government’s financial help that came after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Congressmen, including members of Louisiana’s delegation, as well as prominent Republicans, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, excoriated House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for delaying the vote Tuesday.
Boehner told Rep. Peter King and other angry Northeast lawmakers in a short afternoon meeting Wednesday that he would hold a vote Friday on $9.7 billion in funding needed for federal flood insurance and another set of votes on Jan. 15 on the remaining $50.3 billion.
Boehner would not say why the vote was delayed.
King, R-N.Y., said Boehner delayed the votes on storm recovery funding for political reasons. Some representatives did not want to vote on deficit-increasing disaster aid right after the House approved a fiscal cliff deal that adds to the federal deficit, he said.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, called it “appalling” that House Republicans were not responding to Sandy the same way Louisiana benefited from congressional aid after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
“As we took one step closer to a financial solvency and averted a financial bankruptcy,” Richmond said, “we just took one humongous step toward a moral bankruptcy.”
Millions in New York, New Jersey and beyond are being left “in the cold,” Richmond said. “It’s not just shameful, it’s sinful,” he added.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., helped lead the Sandy aid effort, which the Senate approved last month with 62 votes, including that of David Vitter, R-La. Landrieu said in a prepared statement late Wednesday that she is “extremely disappointed” in the U.S. House.
“The bipartisan Senate-passed bill not only included robust funding but also critical reforms and tools to help communities recover in a faster, smarter, more cost-effective manner,” Landrieu stated. “When disasters strike, Americans count on their government to quickly respond. The House of Representatives should come back and finish the job.”
Christie personally called out Boehner for the House’s “callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state.” Christie said at a news conference: “Americans are tired of the palace intrigue and political partisanship of this Congress, which places one-upmanship ahead of the lives of citizens.”
King said that anyone from New York or New Jersey who gives “one penny” to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee “should have their head examined.”
After meeting with Boehner on Wednesday afternoon, a calmer sounding King said, “The fact is we’re getting what New York and New Jersey needs and that’s all that counts.”
King said the new Congress would vote Friday on about $9 billion in aid for National Flood Insurance Program funding for Sandy disaster aid. Then, Congress would vote Jan. 15 on the remaining $51 billion.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said it is imperative that the Sandy financial aid is approved soon. But, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has adequate funding for at least another month or so.
“It’s always been a priority of mine to fund disasters and do it in a fiscally responsible way,” Scalise said.
There were some criticisms that the U.S. Senate-passed bill had too much unrelated pork spending, Scalise said, and it will be necessary to review the details of what the House votes on to ensure “that (pork) process of buying votes” is not included in the deal.
As for the fiscal cliff deal that raises taxes on those households making more than $450,000 a year, Scalise was among those who voted against it because it also punted for a month or two on decisions regarding the debt ceiling and automatic spending cuts, called sequestration.
“We really need to get serious about addressing the spending problem in Washington,” Scalise said.
Another part of the fiscal cliff deal averted the so-called “milk cliff.” The compromise extended the old federal farm bill that dated back to 2008. In doing so, the 2012 federal farm bill that was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House becomes null and void.
Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain complained Wednesday that the House failed to act on the Senate-passed, five-year farm bill. But Strain was pleased that there was at least a nine-month extender added in the cliff deal.
“A short-term extension of the bill blocks milk and bread prices from drastically increasing, but the state of the farm bill remains unfinished,” Strain said. “Funding to many vital programs such as disaster assistance is suspended indefinitely.”
While Sandy aid also is delayed, Strain said disaster farm aid is unfunded and unaddressed, even though crop insurance is included in the deal.
Strain also noted that tax increases on estate taxes and capital gains included in the cliff deal will negatively affect owners of “larger farms.”