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Hurricane Sandy relief bill passes Senate. Provides important aid but House R’s efforts to strip out $ for planning to rebuild survive.

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Tonight the Hurricane Sandy emergency funding bill from the House of Representatives H.R.152 : Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013, was taken up in the Senate with limited debate – quite limited. The bill passed the Senate with 62 votes, a bipartisan rare success in DC, with nine Republicans joining 53 Democrats.

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Sandy which resulted in massive damage to coastal communities

The $50.5 billion aid package to help the region recover is now on its way to President Obama’s desk, but like much legislation that is drafted in DC, it isn’t perfect. Unlike some errors that appear in legislation which are the result of late night drafting under tight deadlines or simple inability to predict a changing set of future circumstances which result in unintended consequences, some problems with legislation are quite intentional, and the bill that passed today contains a very intentional problem.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas’s 14th district (Waco, College Park and nearby areas) has been adamant about defunding anything that comes through the House with connections to a wide-reaching set of plans to make government more efficient and improve the planning in our coastal and ocean waters. Those plans, crafted over a number of years by multiple bi-partisan commissions, were combined and announced during President Obama’s first year in office through an Executive Order which established the nation’s first National Ocean Policy.

Rep. Flores’ efforts to object to the President’s plans have thus far aimed at removing the funding for efforts to have more sensible planning occur in the U.S. coastal zone and ocean waters, and he’s been fairly successful in getting provisions added to House spending bills.  In the 112th Congress efforts to oppose the National Ocean Policy in the House were successful, but those successes met a quick end when Senate bills which lack such provisions run into the differing House language in Conference Committee. Ultimately the House language drops out…or it did in the 112th Congress.

To expedite the relief for victims of the Hurricane Sandy disaster Senate leadership fought to bring the House bill up for consideration with the minimum amendments possible. In fact only one Republican – Senator Mike Lee of Utah – had an amendment which was considered. That amendment proposed to fully offset the relief aid costs with cuts to discretionary funding, an amendment popular with Tea Party groups, but which fell well below the necessary 60 votes and failed 35-62.  That meant the Senate was voting on the House version of the bill as-is, including the provision from Rep. Flores to cut $150M in grant support for Regional Planning Bodies.

image of flooded taxis

Flooding resulted in economic losses and also damage to transportation infrastructure communities depend upon. Will we plan better for the next flooding event?

On the surface for those not immersed in governance issues for a living, the Flores amendment looks reasonable as it saves money by eliminating funds for NOAA pass-through funds which look to some to be unrelated to the disaster recovery. But to the informed the cuts which save $150M endanger the effectiveness of the $50.5B in federal dollars slated to flow to the region. The Regional Planning Bodies are structured with a membership that includes federal agencies, states and tribes, with input from a range of groups representing the private sector.  It is precisely that sort of broad membership which would be well positioned to discuss not simply how to rebuild what was lost, but how to make it better and most importantly in the context of disaster response, how to make what is rebuilt more resilient.

Whether Rep. Flores’ efforts are simply naive penny wise pound foolish, or whether they are a calculated effort to frustrate President Obama’s efforts to govern at every available turn is unclear. But what is clear is that $50.5B is a major federal investment, and we can only hope the federal agencies, states, tribes and localities can find ways not prohibited by the legislation to collaborate and rebuild in a coordinated way that is mindful of our changing climatic conditions. We need policies and practices that mitigate a changing climate with a systematic approach to adaptation, not a piecemeal approach that leaves some communities much better planned while others are left unnecessarily in harm’s way. The $150M that was cut from the $50.5B package made just such a well crafted response a bit harder.

The author of this blog is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy, government relations and strategic communications firm in Washington, DC.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert and on Pinterest at http://pinterest.com/willnuckols/

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