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Hurricane Sandy Relief Appropriation Running Into Trouble

Hurricane Sandy's Aftermath. Tom's River (NJ) Fire Department personnel on scene - today.

While waiting around for fiscal slope negotiations to conclude, Congress has bided its time with legislation seemingly timed for the holiday travel season. The House gave final approval to a bill that would give the TSA more leeway when screening checked baggage from international airports that is going on to a separate flight in the US. Many passengers will not have to re-check baggage for their connecting flight. The Senate also passed a bill that would route clothing left behind at security checkpoints to homeless military veterans.

Obviously this isn’t quite the stuff of weighty lawmaking, and Congress could be using this lull in the action to work on several critical measures. The Violence Against Women Act needs to be reauthorized (Vice President Biden is working with the House GOP on that). The farm bill must pass, lest we fall off the agricultural cliff. The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act must be extended, lest we fall off the housing cliff. Postal service reform is desperately needed. You have dozens of federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation. There are plenty of non-airport travel-related bills requiring attention.

One of the biggest is a $60.4 billion supplemental appropriation for relief from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. After the White House made the request, the Senate introduced a bill, and Harry Reid said it was at the top of his agenda. The Senate put it into a 2013 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriation already passed by the House, allowing the Senate to add the new spending and immediately go to conference, if they pass it. But as expected, the appropriation request is running into trouble in the House.

House lawmakers don’t intend to introduce an emergency funding bill anywhere near as large as the $60 billion the Obama administration is seeking to help rebuild the Northeast after superstorm Sandy, saying the administration hasn’t provided sufficient details to justify spending that amount, two senior GOP aides said Wednesday.

If the Republican-controlled House doesn’t take up the measure this year, it would push debate on a large rebuilding bill into next year — something New York and New Jersey officials have said they want to avoid.

Some conservative lawmakers have said they want to see spending offsets for Sandy relief, but it looks more like a simple slow-walk of the request. All appropriations run out after a continuing resolution expires at the end of March, so maybe Republicans want to delay until then, where they can use that leverage to reduce the request.

At any rate, the idea of penny-pinching when there’s so much need in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut and throughout the East Coast is pretty distasteful. The federal government has consistently appropriated disaster relief throughout the bulk of its history, at least in the post-Gilded Age period. And this is a situation where the timing matters; emergency means emergency.

Photo by Tom’s River (NJ) Fire Department under Creative Commons license.

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David Dayen

David Dayen