The Senate on Tuesday passed a short-term extension of the federal flood insurance program, sending it to President Trump for his signature hours before an Aug. 1 deadline.
The 86-to-12 vote preserves access to flood insurance for U.S. homeowners, but it again punts on reforms to a program that covers more than 5 million households and collects more than $3 billion in premiums yearly.
The bill extends the authorization for the program and its ability to borrow funds through Nov. 30.
Lawmakers have been unable to move forward on changes to the program nearly a year after a string of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — highlighted the fiscal stress on the program.
Claims in 2017 exceeded $8.7 billion, with more claims from last year’s storms expected to be filed in 2018. The National Flood Insurance Program has more than $20 billion in public debt on its books; an additional $16 billion was canceled last year to avoid a $30 billion ceiling on the program’s borrowing.
“We are not bathing ourselves in glory by doing this,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said Monday. “I think we would all acknowledge that passing this reauthorization right before the deadline does not entitle us to pat ourselves on the back. Instead, it should motivate members to work across the aisle to provide meaningful reforms.”
The extension approved Tuesday is the seventh stopgap Congress has passed since the previous long-term authorization lapsed last year.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that Trump would sign the extension, with reservation.
The administration, she said, “proposed a number of common-sense reforms to put the program on a sound financial footing while ensuring that affordable rates are maintained for low-income policyholders.”
But those changes — meant to improve flood-risk pricing, end repeated payouts on flood-prone properties and entice private insurers into a market they have abandoned for decades — have gained little traction. In Congress, fault lines have developed within the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, dividing staunch fiscal conservatives who want to end the federal role in the flood insurance market from coastal-state lawmakers whose constituents rely on the federal subsidy to keep their premiums down.
The measure passed the House on July 25 on a 366-to-52 vote. All but one of the 52 opposed were Republicans, and they included Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who is a fierce advocate for overhauling the program.
Hensarling said on the House floor last week that he had visited Texas communities devastated by Harvey where he had “heard harrowing tales of survival.”
“And yet we have a program that says, ‘You know what? We will help you rebuild your same home in the same fashion in the same place — hope you survive next time,’ ” he said. “That’s wrong. . . . But this bill before us has no reforms.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who has opposed many of Hensarling’s more aggressive overhaul proposals, said lawmakers “can’t play some game of chicken” with families living in flood-prone areas.He blamed the Senate for failing to act on a compromise bill that passed the House last year.
“We could talk about the reforms that are needed, and I encourage us to get those kind of reforms done,” Scalise said. “But at the midnight hour, let’s at least keep this program going for a few more months while we continue negotiating.”
Several senators have said they are exploring potential changes to the program, including Louisiana Republicans Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy.
Cassidy said Monday that the extension would “allow for the continued reform efforts of this program so as to make it more accountable, more affordable and more sustainable.”