January 5, 2013

SOMETIMES IN Washington, acrimony is most pronounced when allies disagree. See, for example, Rep. Peter King’s explosion over House Speaker John A. Boehner’s decision not to vote on $60.4 billion in Hurricane Sandy aid last week. The Long Island Republican called the move a “cruel knife in the back” delivered to a region that the GOP would starve for political reasons. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who asked Congress for $30 billion in assistance, said that the House inaction shows “why people hate Washington.”

But was Mr. Boehner so unreasonable? It’s true that the Senate passed a bill last month, but since the House did not, the whole process had to start over in the new Congress sworn in on Thursday. It has been almost 10 weeks since the so-called superstorm ravaged the Northeast, longer than it took federal lawmakers to act after other disasters, even very costly ones such as Hurricane Katrina. The National Flood Insurance Program was already deeply in the red before Sandy hit, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the New York Daily News that the maximum grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is only $31,000 — not nearly enough to compensate many who lost much more in wrecked homes, businesses and other property. What, beyond political considerations, could motivate lawmakers to delay money for any of that?

Well, one thought: wanting to know what’s in a $60 billion bill before voting on it. On Friday the House approved the most urgently needed money, $9.7 billion for flood insurance. It is set to consider the rest this month, perhaps in two chunks — one addressing pressing needs, the other longer-term projects and other non-emergency spending. Disaster bills often turn into vehicles for pork, and critics have pointed to provisions in the Senate version of the Sandy relief bill that they say are wasteful or at least should gain approval only after review. These include millions of dollars for fisheries in Alaska and NASA facilities in Florida.

Certainly, the whole country — not just the Northeast — will have to upgrade its infrastructure in coming years, hardening bridges, coasts and power lines against rising seas and other natural threats, which would head off high rebuilding costs later. But figuring out how to deploy scarce federal funds to that end involves smart planning and tough trade-offs, neither of which tends to be featured in last-minute, emergency legislating. The House version of the bill landed only Tuesday; it’s unfair to accuse leaders of dismissing disaster victims for not leaping to vote aye on $60 billion in spending. Particularly now that some money has been approved, lawmakers should take more than a day or two to vet the package and to decide which spending should be offset. The cost, after all, equals a full year’s worth of the tax revenue the fiscal-cliff bargain will raise.

If lawmakers are truly concerned with disaster victims, the next thing they will do is act more comprehensively on some of Sandy’s lessons. The National Flood Insurance Program badly requires reform. And Congress will need a more coherent, long-term strategy for the nation’s infrastructure — one passed after due consideration, not under the pressure of time-sensitive disaster aid.