The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The politics of disaster aid, explained

Days after Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) blocked passage of a disaster aid package, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) blocked a second effort to pass the bill on May 28. (Video: C-SPAN)

This post, originally published Friday, has been updated with the latest news.

Most lawmakers agree that spending money to help communities recover from disasters has long been a central job of the federal government, and it’s becoming more important as climate change exacerbates extreme weather.

But a combination of a less-effective Congress, a Republican focus on austerity and general political polarization have contributed to a disaster aid package stumbling through Congress right now to help clean up from Midwest flooding, California wildfires and hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico. Which means as climate change gets worse, so does Congress’s ability to fund relief.

On Friday, a single House Republican held up the $19.1 billion disaster relief bill, which appeared to be on its way to the president’s desk so long as no lawmaker objected to it. On Tuesday, another House Republican held it up over concerns about how it was being voted on. The bill had already been stalled for months as President Trump wrangled with Congress to try to get funding for his border wall included. (He didn’t ultimately succeed.)

There are a few reasons for the politicization of disaster aid, says Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution who carefully follows spending debates. Primarily:

Fewer bills pass Congress these days: At least, fewer bills pass both chambers of Congress, especially in a divided government. The ones Congress does get to are considered “must-pass” legislation that controls spending in some way, like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling or disaster relief.

When there are fewer bills to negotiate over, lawmakers — and the president — have fewer opportunities to push their priorities. So they try to tack things onto a must-pass bill, and lawmakers end up debating half a dozen unrelated issues.

A 2016 bill to fight the Zika virus, for example, got held up when conservatives attached a provision to restrict federal grants to provide services like birth control to women in Puerto Rico. While discussing this particular disaster relief bill, Reynolds wrote to The Fix in an email, “Congress debated agricultural items, the Violence Against Women Act, and something involving the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund” that Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) wanted. Plus Trump’s border wall.

Republicans recently started insisting on cutting spending elsewhere: In 2011, in the wake of Hurricane Irene racking the East Coast, Republicans started insisting that disaster spending get offset by other federal budget cuts.

“Clearly when disasters and emergencies happen, people expect their government to treat them as national priorities and respond properly,” then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told the New York Times. “People also expect their government to spend their dollars wisely, and to make efforts to prioritize and save when possible."

That’s not always the party line today, but budget austerity is more of a factor than it used to be. The cost of today’s $19 billion bill is one reason Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) objected to Friday’s unanimous consent vote. The process was another. Unanimous consent is a type of voting that allows bills to pass without most lawmakers being in the chamber. But it can get held up by just one lawmaker objecting.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) on May 24 blocked a unanimous consent request to pass a disaster aid package before the Memorial Day recess. (Video: House of Representatives)

That’s how Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) held up the vote on Tuesday. He argued from the House floor that a bill this important should have every lawmaker there to vote on it. “ . . . [I]f the speaker of this house felt that this was must-pass legislation,” he said, “the speaker of this House should have called a vote on this bill before sending every member of Congress on recess for 10 days. And I object.”

Trump: It’s overly simplistic to blame disaster relief funding struggles on one person or even one president. But Trump is a major factor in all this, particularly his brand of transactional politics.

Much of his negotiations with Congress even on bipartisan bills, as this relief package is, go something like: I’ll sign this into law IF you give me what I want. As with most battles he has with Congress, what Trump wants is billions of dollars to start building his border wall. Not even Republicans are willing to give him that. (Or at least they don’t want to risk a Democratic filibuster in the Senate over it.) So the bill stalled in the Senate.

Once it got over that hurdle, Roy held it up the House. Even though the president was okay with no border wall funding, Roy wanted it.

House Democrats control the majority in the chamber and thus can pass this by a simple majority vote. But because of Roy, they will have to wait until next week when lawmakers are back from the Memorial Day holiday to do it.

This has been one of the most political disaster relief debates in recent history, and all the signs point to them becoming more and more political — at a time when the country is facing more and more natural disasters.