Fight looming in Congress over Ida emergency spending money

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Former Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., knows something about trying to convince his colleagues on Capitol Hill to approve an emergency spending bill after a major, natural disaster.

"I was not anticipating a fight at all," said King, after Superstorm Sandy lashed New York City, New Jersey, New England and much of the Eastern seaboard in October 2012. 

"Instead, it was like I was asking for foreign aid for the Soviet Union," said King after Congress struggled to approve billions of dollars to help the region recover from the devastating storm.

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"I try to get along with people," sighed King. "But there are some people I never quite looked at the same after that."

And so in the coming days, weeks, and perhaps months, there will likely be a demand for additional congressional spending to cover the cost of Hurricane Ida. The storm ravaged New Orleans. Soaked the south. It then churned through Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C., pelting all in its wake with bathtubs full of rain and spinning tornados. 

We don’t really know what federal resources are needed to help Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other areas recover from Ida. In fact, many regions of Louisiana are off the grid right now and may be for weeks. Pictures, video, phone calls, emails, pleas for help and even stories about what happened, may not be known for days. Airboats still haven’t navigated all of the new tributaries and eddies carved by Ida in the deepest recesses of the bayou. 

That’s when local officials and lawmakers will really start to assess the recovery and infrastructure needs of multiple states bludgeoned by Ida’s power. And, they will come, with hat in hand, asking for assistance, from the federal government.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has more than $40 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund to tackle immediate needs. But that probably won’t cover everything after the impacts of a Category 4 hurricane. Schools, hospitals, police stations, levies, bridges, dams and airports will likely face a lengthy rebuild. And only Washington has pockets deep enough to address all of it. 

Lawmakers who represent those states and districts will push leaders for assistance – even if some also try to hold the fiscal bottom line. 

And as soon as the lawmakers who want a bill to help recover from Ida, lawmakers who represent the west will start to chirp about help to deal with the wildfires. You may even hear from some farm state lawmakers about drought.

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You see where this is going. 

"It’s important to remember there’s no such thing as a Democratic hurricane or a Republican drought," said Thomas Kahn, a longtime leading aide on the House Budget Committee. Kahn is now a Distinguished Fellow at American University. "Everybody, at one time or another, is going to have an emergency that is going to need to be funded."

In other words, if you get ice storms in Vermont and New Hampshire, you’re sure to also support the bill that bails out Florida and the Carolinas after a hurricane.

But some of that thinking began to evolve following Hurricane Katrina after it tore through Louisiana and Mississippi in August, 2005. 

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King notes that the Gulf Coast states scored practically everything they needed after Hurricane Katrina. But it was another story when Superstorm Sandy whipsawed New York. 

"A lot of politicians in the House made their career talking about corruption in New York City and attacking New York," complained King. "It was billed in the southern media and southern Republican circles as being another New York giveaway."

King said his GOP colleagues portrayed efforts to help the Big Apple "was just another scam by New York." 

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New Jersey needed money, too. King says Former Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., went around the chamber, looking at members who opposed the Sandy assistance. 

"He said ‘We’ll see what happens next time you come back and ask for aid after what you’ve done to us this time,’" said King of LoBiondo. 

King also took aim at the GOP’s political wallet.

King argued that after the poor treatment following Sandy, any New Yorker "who contributes one penny to the Republican party ought to have their head examined." King says "that got people’s attention."

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King pointed out that his Republican colleagues had no compunction from the south coming to New York City and "holding fundraisers in the Hamptons. Then they go back home and vote against New York."

The Northeast never quite secured all the money King and others wanted. The House finally approved a scaled-down supplemental spending bill to cover the storm in early 2013. Only a fraction of House Republicans supported it. Many of those who did vote aye were members of the House GOP brass, members of the Appropriations Committee (which is in charge of spending money), represented areas damaged by Sandy, or, hailed from districts along the Gulf Coast – no strangers to hurricanes. 

The experience with Sandy fundamentally altered the Congressional experience when wrestling with supplemental spending bills for natural disaster.

"The supplemental process has become much more political and more difficult to pass because it’s more partisan," said Kahn. "It was quite ironic because those members who were criticizing Sandy not that much longer thereafter actually had similar emergencies in their states and needed the same money."

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That’s why Mother Nature may be one of the most "democratic" forces in the universe. Every Congressional district or state receives the brunt of dangerous weather or natural disasters at some point. Some years ago, lawmakers would always support such emergency spending. They knew their district or state could be next.

But not everyone is willing to get on board in the current hyper partisan environment. And frankly, some conservative Republicans who like to hold the bottom line, have discovered it’s more politically expedient to oppose big spending bills – even for a good cause. They know that their colleagues will carry the freight for them, voting yes and passing the natural disaster bill. Those lawmakers who vote no get the best of both worlds. They maintain fiscal purity. Yet, their constituents reap the benefit of others in Congress who are willing to vote yes for certain types of disaster relief.

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After Superstorm Sandy, King says it was a challenge to get gasoline and even transport medicine to those in need. Places in Louisiana are probably going through those very travails now. And no one knows the overall need. Yet.

That will become clear in the coming days. Someone will attach a price tag to the storm.

And then the fight will begin on Capitol Hill. 

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