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The Emergency Bill That Lacked An Emergency

As construction workers and volunteers rebuild the structures destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, they will do well to remember the old rule “measure twice, cut once.” Despite the histrionics of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others, Congress was wise to keep those words in mind as well.

After it emerged from a marathon debate over the fiscal cliff, the House of Representatives was scheduled to immediately take up a $60.4 billion storm relief package. As the final hours of the 112th Congress approached, however, House Speaker John Boehner decided that the bill could be better addressed when more time was available to devote to it.

The scheduling move sparked an intense backlash, most notably from Christie, whose state was hit hard by the storm. Brimming with emotion, Christie accused Boehner and other Republican leaders of treating his state’s citizens as political pawns.

While the 112th Congress never did take up an emergency spending measure, lawmakers passed a stopgap $9.7 billion package during the first few days of the 113th Congress; President Obama signed that bill this week. The rest of the proposed spending will come to a vote later this month. Christie, however, has continued to criticize the House for not voting on the original bill. “New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display,” he said.

I understand Christie’s emotion. It has been a difficult winter for those hit by the storm, and if beach communities that depend on tourism are not fully rebuilt before Memorial Day, it will be a difficult summer for them as well. As Christie pointed out, Sandy victims have waited far longer for an aid package than other victims of recent natural disasters have. It has been more than two months since Sandy. By contrast, Congress passed an aid bill less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Of course, those in Washington have not been simply sitting idly, staring at the White House’s Sandy appropriation request. Days after the storm, there was a divisive presidential election. Since then, Congress, and in particular the Republican-controlled House, has engaged in a historic practical and philosophical struggle with the reelected president over the role, scope and cost of government.

These other concerns would still be no excuse if storm victims were suffering immediate harm as a result of the lack of an aid bill or if passing the bill was a simple matter. Neither of these things is the case.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said it still has enough funds to last until at least early spring. The only truly time-sensitive problem was that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) needed a cash infusion to pay claims. The $9.7 billion bill satisfied that need.

The larger spending package will address a far wider range of issues. In a much publicized example, the original bill included money for Alaska fisheries - all of which safely avoided the brunt of the storm more than 4,000 miles away. More significantly, nearly half of the money requested in the original bill was intended to mitigate the effects of future disasters, not to repair existing damage.

It’s possible that Alaska fisheries were deeply affected by environmental and economic disruptions related to the storm and should thus receive compensation. It’s also possible that the future-oriented spending is well-planned and necessary. Neither of those things, however, is self-evident. Especially in the wake of a tax bill that simultaneously increased taxes and government spending, there is no reason that the comprehensive, long-term response to Sandy should not be the subject of discussion and debate.

The specific circumstances surrounding the scheduled vote on the original aid bill made this sort of discussion impossible. Because the congressional session was about to end, there was no time for the Senate to consider any possible House amendments. If the bill had come to a vote, the only options were to take it or leave it. None of the important details of how to address a complex situation in a cost-effective way could have been considered.

As for Christie’s argument that Congress managed a swifter response to Katrina, I would respond first that Congress had more time available then for discussion and, second, that it probably should have taken even more time than it did. In all, the federal government devoted around $85 billion to recovery from Katrina, with $62.3 billion of that coming from the initial bill passed in the immediate aftermath of the storm. According to later Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits, an unknown but significant share of that money was misspent.

A number of personal and political factors may have fed into Christie’s response. He may have felt his party owed him, and his state, the money in return for his previous support. He was a tireless fundraiser for Republicans nationwide during the recent election. He also stood up to the Obama administration and its free-spending ways when he rejected a proposed trans-Hudson tunnel in 2010 - though his primary motive then was to spare his state’s taxpayers, not to protect the federal Treasury. When his party failed to deliver the hoped-for funds, Christie may have seen the move as spiteful retaliation for his praise of President Obama’s response to Sandy in the days before the election.

I suspect, though, that the deepest issue was simply the pull of emotion in the face of disaster. When destruction hits, it is easy to see the biggest, fastest possible monetary reaction as a sign of caring, and anything less as callous indifference. While it is important to meet urgent needs quickly, setting aside a giant hunk of money all at once is not usually the smartest approach for the long haul. Our goals ought to be to give disaster victims assurance that they will be helped while also assuring the rest of the country that tax dollars will be well-used.

Figuring out how to do this won’t be easy, and it will take time. But few carpenters have ever regretted being too slow with their measuring tapes; many have regretted being too quick with their saws.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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