This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on September 7, 2017.
As the long recovery from Hurricane Harvey’s devastation begins in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, the debate over when and how to provide disaster relief is just getting started in Congress.
Sadly, the type of bravery and selflessness on display in Houston and East Texas — with Americans rushing to help those in need — has so far not been matched in Washington. With the debate moving to the Senate, reports have surfaced that Republicans are planning to work with Democrats to combine Harvey relief with both an increase in the debt ceiling and a government funding bill.
Congressional leadership unfortunately appears poised to miss the opportunity to do something different and instead leverage Texas’ misfortune to grow government and drive up debt.
Through strong state fiscal management, Texas boasts an $11 billion Rainy Day Fund specifically designed to be used for disasters such as this. As thousands of Texans, aided by their fellow citizens, begin the hard work of rebuilding their lives, Texas has the ability and desire to use some of its own funds to start the process of recovery.
While federal assistance will be necessary, Congress should avoid the mistakes of past efforts, such as with the Hurricane Sandy aid package of 2013.
First and foremost, Congress should pass a bill separate from other legislative vehicles. Holding recovery aid hostage to massive borrowing and spending legislation is immoral and cynical, and denies Americans the right to have a serious debate over much-needed reforms.
Next, aid should be directed specifically to FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and only appropriate federal functions focusing on the region’s most pressing needs for disaster recovery. Non-urgent measures should not be attached to Harvey relief. Larding up a disaster relief bill with billions in community development block grants, shiny new aircraft and cars for government agencies, and cash for pet government programs was immoral during Sandy relief and remains immoral should it be attempted now.
Finally, the funding should be offset. The country is already $20 trillion in debt. Washington politicians shouldn’t be adding to the misery of Texans by saddling them and the rest of the country — not to mention future generations — with tens of billions more to owe.
After the hard work is done to assess the total damage, Congress should continue to rely on these principles when debating long-term relief. All future aid should be separate, targeted, and not add to our debt.
Texans have reminded the nation what the American spirit looks like when individuals and communities take responsibility and lead the way to help their fellow citizens in need. It’s been encouraging to see the very best of America on display in the fallout — thousands of people rushing to their fellow citizens’ aid displaying extraordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice to help those who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases, their loved ones.
If Washington lawmakers want to show real leadership in times of turmoil, they would do well to follow that example.