Members of Congress Discuss Puerto Rico Relief Legislation

Numerous Senators yesterday offered remarks regarding pending disaster relief legislation scheduled for passage today.  Please see below for full remarks by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Michael Lee (R-UT),  and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS).

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): Today, in California and across the West, families are returning to the charred ruins of their homes—those who were able to get out alive. In Florida and Texas, communities are trying to put their lives back together after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—again, those who were able to get out alive. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands are still without potable water, electricity, cell service, or adequate medical supplies following Hurricane Maria. The Virgin Islands are also facing devastation that I can never remember. Millions of Americans all over the country, as well as the Americans in Puerto Rico and the Americans in the Virgin Islands, need us to work together to help lift them up, just as we have seen in past disasters. This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue; this is an American issue. This is who we are as a country. We hold together.

I have been privileged to serve here since the time of President Ford. In times of disaster, I have seen every single President, Republican and Democrat, work to help Americans and do it out of concern for Americans, not for themselves. That is why it is so disappointing that President Trump seems more concerned with claiming credit for a job well done than the actual situation on the ground deserves, particularly in Puerto Rico. President Trump has given himself a 10 out of 10 as though this were a game show for the administration’s response to the devastating hurricane, but let’s look at some numbers that really matter for the people who have lost everything. It has been 48 days since Hurricane Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico and 34 days since Hurricane Maria tore through the island. These storms wreaked havoc on those who live there. They destroyed houses and killed at least 49 people. Yet, 48 days later, nearly 80 percent of the island is still without power, and 30 percent of the population is without clean drinking water—some having to resort to drinking contaminated water. Roads are impassable. Bridges are down. The few hospitals that are operating are operating on generators.

Frankly, the administration was slow to respond to the disaster. So to claim that it gets a 10 out of 10 for its response is to ignore the facts, especially the facts that the people who have been hit know so well. As I said before, this is not a reality TV show. It is not where the participant with the highest score advances to the next round. This is not fiction. These are people’s lives—real people. They are people’s homes. This is the hard part of governing. This is where we roll up our sleeves and dig in for the long haul. We stop patting ourselves on the back. Instead, we use that hand to give a hand to the people who are hurting. Today we are going to advance a disaster package that contains $36.5 billion in additional emergency relief. It includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program debt forgiveness, $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance, and $576.5 million to address these devastating wildfires in the western part of the United States.

As vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I support this bill, and I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do the same. If we do not act, the Disaster Relief Fund and the Flood Insurance Program will run out of resources in a matter of days. This money, if we pass it, will help FEMA, the Department of Defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies to continue their work in all of the devastated communities and to start catching up with the work that needs to be done and to help families begin to rebuild their homes and their lives— those who did not die in the disaster. This is just the next step. This is a multi-step process. This is the next step on the road to recovery. Last week, I met with Governor Ricardo Rossello, of Puerto Rico, and his staff. I have been to Puerto Rico many times, in happier times, but here he detailed the unique challenges that face Puerto Rico. He was telling us what is happening to our fellow Americans. The electric grid was almost completely destroyed. Its infrastructure, itself, was demolished. Houses were flattened. At the same time, Puerto Rico faces a fiscal situation that will make it nearly impossible for it to provide the Federal match that is required for most disaster assistance programs. It faces a Medicaid funding crisis that may leave nearly 1 million people without healthcare in just a matter of months, assuming that we restore their healthcare.

This tells us that our response cannot be business as usual. We need to tailor disaster assistance to meet Puerto Rico’s unique challenges. We may need to consider legislation to address its unique needs. Most importantly, we need to think long term. To simply replace and repair what was destroyed would be shortsighted. We have to help our fellow Americans who are in Puerto Rico to recover, to rebuild, and to be more resilient and better prepared. We should invest in the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and invest in their infrastructure so that the next disaster is not a humanitarian issue and crisis. Some like to say that the situation is unique in Puerto Rico. It is not. We have to acknowledge that historicized storms are now annual occurrences, and we have to respond accordingly. Even with the help from our own citizens and from the U.S. Government, we are just now fully rebuilding in Vermont, and we were not hit as badly as these other places were. Across the country—from wildfires in California to the flood damage in Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as what I said about Puerto Rico—we can invest in technology, and we can invest in conservation and infrastructure. That would mitigate further damage.

Do you know what? It would also make these communities more resilient because we cannot speak about ‘‘once in 100 years’’ storms. Sometimes, as we have seen this year, they have been ‘‘once in 2 months’’ or ‘‘once in 3 weeks’’ storms. This requires a commitment from the U.S. Government. It is not measured by days or weeks or months but in years—a commitment that does not waver, a commitment that does not depend on whether you live in Texas or Florida or Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. Today, I urge all Senators to support this emergency supplemental bill that will provide much needed assistance for disaster relief across the country, but it is still just the next step on the path to recovery. The Trump administration is committed to putting forward a third, more comprehensive disaster package in the coming weeks. As vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I intend to hold the administration to that commitment. In conclusion, even in the years since Irene, this Vermonter still takes comfort in the number of Republican and Democratic Senators who called me during that storm and pledged support and, along with the pledge, came through with the support

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY):

Like many colleagues, I have been engaged on this issue from the very start. Through several meetings with leaders from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, I have had the opportunity to hear firsthand how the government can support their relief efforts. I met with Puerto Rico’s Governor last week to get another update on the funding request and to hear about the continuing recovery. In addition, I have continued working with the administration as it responds to these storms. For instance, after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, I met with the Department of Homeland Security’s Acting Secretary to learn more about what would be needed. I also met with President Trump’s eminently qualified nominee to lead that Department. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a supplemental funding request with strong bipartisan support, and now it is our turn to act. As we all know, the administration will continue to actively review hurricane relief and recovery needs. As it does, we can expect the transmittal of additional supplemental requests for our consideration in the near future. The victims of these hurricanes continue to count on our support, and I look forward to the Senate continuing to do its part to help.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL):

It is my hope that the White House promise that this will be taken up in November, which is the next tranche of the hurricane money, the disaster assistance. It has been well past a month since Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico and 2 months since it hit Florida, and Floridians all across our State are working as hard as ever to recover. One group of individuals who were hit especially hard by this storm is Florida’s citrus growers. I will refer again to this photograph. You can see the citrus grove. You can see the branches on the citrus trees. Some of the trees have blown over, but in the meantime, you can see all of the fruit that is on the ground.

Sen. Michael Lee (R-UT):

Madam President, as we speak, our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida are recovering from a series of devastating hurricanes. Over 100 people have lost their lives because of these terrible storms, and many more are struggling to get by day to day. The crisis is perhaps most acute in Puerto Rico, where 35 percent of the population still does not have access to safe drinking water and four out of five Puerto Ricans do not have power. The people of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas have responded with great tenacity and admirable creativity to this disaster. I wish the same could be said of the politicians here in Washington, DC.

Once again, this body is poised to fail the American people. Instead of helping the victims of these disasters through responsible aid paired with lasting reform, Congress has rushed to its favorite so-called solution—billions of dollars in new spending with little accountability or meaningful oversight. If this $36.5 billion aid package passes, it will mean even more money and more power for government programs that in some cases left us vulnerable to these disasters in the first place. If it passes, the politicians and lobbyists will pat themselves on the back for doing a good deed and then move on to the next multi-billion dollar spending opportunity. Meanwhile, the people of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas will be left to pick up the pieces and to deal with the disastrous consequences of this approach. Puerto Rico, in particular, has to contend with the effects of a devastating storm and decades of malfeasance that has left Puerto Rico with $74 billion of debt.

This crisis calls for emergency aid, yes. More than that, it calls for true lasting reform, the type of reform that is noticeably absent from this measure. That is why I am voting no on this shortsighted bill, because it is easy to caricature a vote against emergency aid as calloused or cruel, but it is hard to do the real work that is necessarily required by real, lasting, meaningful reform. It is harder still to defend these packages when their contents are exposed fully to the light of day. If you were evaluating an emergency aid package, you might reasonably expect it to direct all of its spending to programs that actually help the people of Florida, of Puerto Rico, of Texas, but this proposal does not even come close to directing all of its money to broad-based recovery efforts.

Just under half of the $36.5 billion in new spending would bail out the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP. In the Houston area, just 17 percent of homeowners were enrolled in the NFIP. In Puerto Rico, the numbers are even more sparse. Just 5,600 Puerto Ricans are enrolled in NFIP, less than 1 percent of homeowners. That means 99 percent of Puerto Ricans will not get anything at all from the $16 billion to NFIP. But then again, it is not clear that NFIP recipients get much from NFIP to begin with. The National Flood Insurance Program represents the triumph of good intentions over sound public policy. Its generous subsidies were supposed to reduce the need for Federal aid after massive storms. Instead, NFIP encourages thousands of Americans to live in some of the most dangerous real estate in the country.

NFIP sells flood insurance at rates well below that of any reasonable private insurer. As a result, its policies do not accurately reflect the risk of living in manifestly flood-threatened, flood endangered areas. These government policies encourage Americans to live in precisely those areas where their livelihoods—and, in fact, even their lives— can be swept away in an instant. Economists refer to this perverse incentive as moral hazard, and, in more senses than one, that is just what the National Flood Insurance Program is— a hazard to Americans. It is distinctly immoral for the government to subsidize housing in the Nation’s flood plains—deep within the flood plains—or on the edges of its coast. Instead of building your house on a rock, the government wants you to build it on the sand.

NFIP pays out claims for properties that have been swept away not once, not twice, but many, many times before. Homes that have been flooded multiple times make up just 1 percent of NFIP policyholders, but they account for more than one-third of its claims. This has cost taxpayers more than $12.1 billion in payouts according to the Congressional Research Service. When Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston last month, it submerged a house that had been flooded 22 times since 1979. The house is valued at about $600,000. The government has spent $1.8 million to rehabilitate it. No private insurance company would ever offer insurance on the terms that NFIP offers. Such a company would endanger its policyholders, and it would run out of money. That is precisely what has happened under NFIP. The program is $25 billion in debt and routinely blows through its statutory debt limits.

The emergency aid package Congress is considering today would cancel $16 billion of NFIP’s debt—no questions asked. Congress isn’t making NFIP bring its actuarial practices in line with reality or into conformity with free-market forces. No, it isn’t even appropriating new funds for another failed program. That, at least, would be business as usual in Washington. Instead, Congress is effectively giving a debt amnesty to the National Flood Insurance Program. It is absolving NFIP of its sins and making American taxpayers do the penance. So that is an example of what is in the bill. Let’s consider a little bit of what is not in the bill. If we want to be responsible leaders in a moment of crisis like this one, we need to provide long-term reforms in addition to any short-term assistance. We need to provide a full meal to those affected by these storms and not just a temporary, passing sugar rush.

But this bill does not include any reforms that would help Puerto Rico attain long-term stability or climb out from underneath its $74 billion debt. It doesn’t even attempt to reform the dysfunctional electrical utility program which, through a combination of neglect and profiteering, has left millions of Puerto Ricans in darkness. Without electricity, Puerto Rico can’t power hospitals, clinics, food banks, or even sewage systems. And it doesn’t repeal the Jones Act, the protectionist regulation that kept foreign-flagged relief ships out of Puerto Rican harbors for precious days after Hurricane Maria and for a long time has forced Puerto Rican consumers to pay significantly higher prices on just about everything they buy. Simple reform measures such as reforming PREPA, the electric utility company I mentioned a moment ago, or repealing the Jones Act would provide very meaningful, lasting benefits to Puerto Ricans long after the public’s attention has drifted and the relief money has dried up. But Congress, true to form, would rather double down on broken laws and broken programs rather than fix them, and Congress would rather take on more debt than spend according to what we have and prioritize in order to get there.

None of this $36.5 billion in emergency spending is offset by spending reductions on other programs—none of it—not a single dollar. That is the sad irony of this bill. If the trend of deficit fueled spending continues, one day soon we will wake up to the cries of our fellow Americans and we will have nothing to give them in support. Again, this bill doesn’t take care of those programs, and it is not as if there aren’t solutions out there. One of my colleagues, Senator PAUL, has effectively been blocked from introducing an amendment that would call for offsets to this spending. Another one of my colleagues, Senator FLAKE, has tried to introduce an amendment, of which I am a cosponsor, that would bring about some of these other reforms I have described—reforms to the State-owned utility company, to the Jones Act, and reforms to the way that we spend money through the Federal Government in Puerto Rico.

I hope my colleagues will work with me on a more responsible, sustainable, meaningful way to help our brothers and sisters in areas affected by the recent hurricanes. Congress has the authority to lead, especially over Puerto Rico, where we have plenary power that exceeds the authority we have in other parts of the country within States. In this hour of crisis, especially with regard to Puerto Rico, we are the only ones who indisputably have this power, and we are the ones who must act if we are going to achieve meaningful reform. If we can only offer money and a pat on the head, it will be our fault when the American people continue to suffer as a result of failed programs that haven’t worked and call out to us through their failures for reform. Thank you.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS):

Madam President, I urge the Senate to approve the disaster relief supplemental appropriations bill. This bill will provide additional funding for response and recovery operations in areas devastated by recent hurricanes. The storms this year have been severe in both strength and number. Communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are struggling to recover. Both the Disaster Relief Fund and the National Flood Insurance Program are depleted. They will soon run out of money for disaster response and to pay flood insurance claims. The supplemental funding in this bill will ensure that first responders and Federal agencies have the necessary resources to continue their important work.

This bill also includes funding in response to the deadly wildfires that have ravaged western States. While these emergency funds are needed now, I will continue working with my colleagues to find a better way to fund wildfire suppression in the future. This will not be the end of our efforts to respond to this year’s disasters. The Appropriations Committee will continue to work with the administration and with the affected delegations to determine and provide for additional recovery needs. I am committed to doing what is necessary to get the job done.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) gave the following remarks on the house floor:

Mr. Speaker, Friday marked 1 month since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. According to my constituents, current conditions are as follows: more than 1 million Americans there lack access to clean water; mothers cannot make infant formula; people are getting sick from infected water; and nearly 80 percent of the island still lacks electricity. Struggles are everywhere: where there is help trickling in, there are lines, always lines; supplies simply aren’t enough; medical facilities are running on hope; there is no reliable means of communication, so people cannot even register for aid; entire communities are cut off from modern civilization; millions desperately need assistance. President Trump visited the island for as long as it takes to play a round a golf, and he went to the wealthiest part of the capital city. Last week, he granted himself a perfect score for his response to the devastation. But the Trump administration continues to fail our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Mr. Speaker, 3.4 million Americans live in Puerto Rico, and they deserve our full support. Mr. President, can’t you at least airdrop fresh water packets, food provisions, and telephones? Our military can do this anywhere in the world, why not Puerto Rico?

 

 

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