Tuesday, 30 August 2011

As US recovers from Irene, GOP may hold relief funding hostage

I've just returned to Brussels after a weekend of trying to navigate the hurricane-hit Northeast US. It was a bit of an adventure trying to get from Connecticut to JFK airport yesterday, navigating around floods and downed trees. As I flew out on Monday I had the feeling I was being airlifted out of a disaster zone.

Though Hurricane Irene itself may have packed less of a punch than the worst-case-scenario predictions, the aftermath of inland flooding and power outages is creating a mess from New Jersey to Vermont. And according to reports, funding for the recovery effort may be the subject of political brinksmanship in Washington over the coming weeks and possibly months.

I had gone to New York for two weeks for my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary and my new nephew's baptism, both of which were scheduled for this past weekend. Needless to say, both were cancelled. I had to quickly make adjustments to my plans on Friday as predictions for the hurricane got progressively worse and the New York City mayor announced all public transport would be suspended from noon on Saturday.

Large parts of New York City had mandatory evacuations, the first such instance in the city's history. I had to catch the last train out of New York on Saturday morning inland to stay with family in Connecticut. As can be imagine, the train was a nightmare of swearing, pushing and shoving as everyone tried to cram on. All in all though everyone in New York seemed remarkably calm on Friday and Saturday, given then dire predictions that were being made.

As it turned out, New York City wasn't hit very hard. There was only minor flooding in the Battery Park area. But up in Connecticut we were hit bad. By Sunday afternoon half the state had lost power. I thought we were going to be ok when I woke up Sunday and saw we still had electricity. But only a few hours later a giant tree fell in the front yard, crashing down onto the power lines and blocking the road.

With roads blocked from flooding and all modes of transit back into New York City down, I was stranded. We made the best of it, lighting candles and playing board games. On Monday we had to try to find a way out of the town given most of the routes out were closed from flooding. The Connecticut River has swollen to 23 above flood stage. After a bit of a nail-biting adventure, I finally made it to the airport.

For many areas of the inland Northeast US the real danger began Monday, as rivers crested to their maximum extent. Three million people are still without power from North Carolina to Vermont. The storm caused 44 deaths in 13 states, most of which happened after the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm. New Jersey and Connecticut have ordered new evacuations today as new flooding occurs from cresting rivers. Inland flooding is expected to continue until Thursday.

Recovery funding to be held hostage?

Clearly a lot of rebuilding is going to be needed in the coming weeks and months. But the Republican Whip in the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, has said the GOP will take the unprecedented step this year of refusing to authorise emergency recovery spending unless Democrats agree to budget cuts to programs they hold dear.

Disaster recovery in the US is led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. That agency has immediate funding available for relief efforts this week, but that money is going to run out quickly. Ordinarily after a big disaster like this the US congress approves emergency disaster-relief funding. Senate Democrats have said they will put forward a bill to authorise that funding when congress returns from its summer break on 6 September. But Cantor said Republicans will not authorise that new funding unless they get concessions on budget cuts.

The Republicans pursued a similar tactic earlier this summer when they refused to authorise an increase to the US's debt ceiling - ordinarily a routine congressional housekeeping measure - unless Democrats agreed to cut funding for welfare and social programs. That strategy paid off, with the Democrats agreeing to most of the cuts the Republicans asked for. As many commentators predicted, this has apparently emboldened the Republicans to use the strategy again, this time by holding emergency relief funding hostage.

FEMA says it has enough money to pay for the immediate clean-up needs of Hurricane Irene. But when it uses up all of its money to pay for this immediate relief, it will have no money left for long-term rebuilding projects. This will hald recovery efforts not just in the Northeast, but also in the Midwest where rebuilding was just about to start going forward after the recent tornados there.If long negotiations are going to be necessary to free up this funding, it could take months for an agreement could be reached. Until then, rebuilding and recovery projects will be on hold.

I always have mixed feeling when I'm visiting my home country. On one hand, I miss my friends and family there terribly. And I miss being in my own culture, and being around things that are familiar. But at the same time, I feel so discouraged by what is happening there politically. The idea that the funds for recovery from this hurricane are going to be held up by political game-playing is particularly disheartening.


Brad Zimmerman said...

Politicians and politics seems to be moving downhill from "short-sighted" to simply "blind". I agree, it IS disheartening.

Kallisti said...

I understand your mixed feelings..

As a European I don't understand Obamas lack of use of the bully pulpit. He said when campaigning "you/we are the ones we have been waiting for", meaning that when so many people are inspired and active as he achieved in his campaign the normal politicking rules can suspended. But after taking office he has been very reluctant to tap into that.. And smart people like Jon Stewart ridicule him whenever he gets close to co-opting the people and says "It's your job to fix it, don't blame us for not putting pressure on congress".

European national and union politics are messed up in their own way, but this behavior from Obama I can't really understand. Hopefully he can let loose if he gets a second term. And hopefully he will campaign on the message that campaign financing and speech is money must be repealed...