On Thursday, Representative John Rose (R–Tennessee) blocked a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill intended to provide relief to millions of Americans currently recovering from natural disasters.
House Democrats attempted to push the legislation, which was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support with a vote of 85–8 in the Senate, through a special session on Thursday. They were attempting to advance the bill through unanimous consent, a voting procedure that allows legislation to pass through the House of Representatives quickly when it is not in session. (The objection took place during a pro forma session, which occurs when most representatives are out of town for recess.)
But needing unanimous consent means a single objection can prevent legislation from advancing, and, over the past week, Republicans have objected on three separate occasions. According to the Washington Post, Rose justified his objection in brief remarks to a sparsely populated House chamber, denouncing the bill as "another act of irresponsible big government."
Representative Chip Roy (R–Texas) was the first to block the bill with an objection last Friday. Roy criticized the legislation for excluding funding for the Department of Homeland Security to address immigration issues at the border—provisions that were left out over concerns that they would further delay much-needed relief for recovering communities, as well as the package's contribution to the deficit, according to the Hill.
When the House tried to move forward with the legislation on Tuesday, Representative Thomas Massie (R–Kentucky) objected during a voice vote, demanding a roll call vote with more members of Congress present.
The objections have been met with criticism from fellow Republicans and Democrats alike. "Unfortunately, more clowns showed up today to once again delay disaster relief for the states and farmers devastated by the storms of 2018," Representative Austin Scott (R–Georgia) tweeted after Massie's objection on Tuesday.
Despite objections from a select group of conservative representatives, the president told the Senate last week that he supported moving forward to vote on the bill, according to the Washington Post. The House also passed a two-week extension of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set to expire Friday, by voice vote. However, the most recent objection virtually ensures that the disaster relief bill won't pass in the House until Congress reconvenes on Monday after the current recess.
Previous Partisanship Over Relief Aid
Partisan conflict has affected this bill from the start. Introduced by House Democrats in January, Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump have previously blocked the bill over concerns for increased funding to Puerto Rico. But as hesitation over funding for Puerto Rico waned, the bill finally received the necessary bipartisan support in the Senate last week, with provisions for Puerto Rico included.
The bill includes $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico following the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. An additional $5 million is included for an independent study "on the impact of the additional benefits provided through disaster nutrition assistance," the bill states, possibly a preemptive move to quash future debates about the efficacy of aid to Puerto Rico. (Trump previously criticized political figures in Puerto Rico, claiming they had squandered aid, and has repeatedly cited misleading figures inflating the amount of aid that the territory has received.)
Puerto Rico isn't the only territory to receive funding: American Samoa would receive $18 million in grant money for disaster nutrition assistance. While a major point of contention, the provisions for America's territories were only a small part of a larger package designed to provide disaster relief across the United States.
The Bill Allocates Funding for Recovery—and Resiliency
From continued flooding in the Midwest to the most recent wave of extreme tornadoes, it is clear that extreme weather isn't going to abate any time soon. Despite the current administration's critical stance on climate change science, flooding and other extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.
The disaster relief bill seems to take this into account, at least implicitly. The idea of resiliency, or "build[ing] back better than before, has increasingly become part of disaster response," says Patrick Roberts, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation and former associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech's School of Public and International Affairs with expertise in disaster relief.
The bill prioritizes recovery efforts, allocating $3 billion for farm disaster assistance; recent extreme weather has contributed to substantial crop loss and infrastructural damage. The bill also allocates funding specifically for small rural communities that have been impacted by natural disasters in 2018 and 2019.
The legislation also contains deliberate steps to research and prepare for inevitable extreme weather events in the future. It includes funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for recovery efforts such as the removal of marine debris from impacted areas as well as research on topics such as improving forecasting capabilities for future disasters. It also includes $740 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to study and build resilient infrastructure to mitigate damage from floods and storms in high-risk states such as those that were affected by hurricanes Florence and Michael, Typhoon Mangkhut, Super Typhoon Yutu, and Tropical Storm Gita. An additional $1 billion is to be used for the Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies account to prepare generally for future natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, in addition to supporting emergency responses after they happen.
A 2017 National Institute of Building Sciences report found that federally funded mitigation grants save $6 in future disaster costs for every $1 spent.
Funding for recovery and relief has become part of a perpetual disaster cycle, Roberts says. After a disaster, "you have recovery—and that's the perfect time to think about mitigation to reduce the cost of future disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes," he says, "because you want to build back better at that point."