Members of Congress Speak Out for Puerto Rico Assistance

On Wednesday, several members of Congress in both the Senate and House of Representatives expressed their support for Puerto Rico.

Numerous Senators expressed their support for Puerto Rico on the Senate floor: Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator Angus King (I-ME), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).

A significant number of Representatives also gave some remarks about the situation in Puerto Rico on the House floor: Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), Rep. French Hill (R-AR), Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Rep. David Scott (D-GA).

Their remarks are copied in full below.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY):

Finally, Mr. President, on the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have left the islands—home to well over 3 million American citizens—hanging on for dear life. You have seen the pictures, and they are devastating. Water, food, diesel, power, cell service, medicine, shelter, security, the basic needs of human survival are limited and running out in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Diabetic patients who require insulin shots are unable to keep their lifesaving medicine refrigerated. Hospitals still lack power and running water. This was a catastrophe on an epic scale. It may have been one of the worst humanitarian crises within our borders…

A cursory scroll of President Trump’s Twitter feed and public comments from the past few weeks does not show him using the power of his office to focus our attention on the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It has been a week since the storm hit and, as I said, his Twitter feed and public comments don’t show him using the power of the office. When he mentions Puerto Rico, President Trump promotes his own administration’s efforts and implies that Puerto Rico was partially at fault for the devastation they have been suffering. The response from the administration needs to get a whole lot better fast. I spoke to the Governor of Puerto Rico yesterday, and he gave me specific items that would provide immediate help. I spoke about them yesterday, and I hope the administration acts on them quickly. But most importantly, we need the administration to send us an emergency and interim aid package to pass, just as we did in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands shouldn’t have to wait a second longer for aid than any other American State or Territory. We should take up and pass this package here in the Senate before the week is over.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME):

I think that now much of our attention is turning to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in order to mitigate what is really a humanitarian disaster. One difference between those islands and Florida and Texas is the fact that they are islands. It is harder to get there. It is harder to get aid there. I understand that just this morning the San Juan airport was open for the first time, and it has opened in a limited way. So this is clearly a responsibility that we have as Senators, as Members of Congress, and as Americans to reach out to our neighbors in a situation such as this. When a crisis hits, it often calls forth the best of America, and I believe that is happening right now.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT):

Mr. President, in the last 24 hours since I came to the floor to talk about Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there has been progress but far less progress than is necessary at this critical time of humanitarian crisis, when the people of those islands literally face a chasm, a deepening canyon of needs and challenges. Over the next 24 hours, over the next 24 days, over the next 24 months, this crisis must be met with a strategy, an overarching plan, a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico that commits the resources unequivocally and unambiguously, making sure we match the depth of this crisis with a magnitude of resources and commitment that is needed and deserved. That kind of response, which has been lacking so far, is absolutely necessary for the hope of Puerto Rico because as the threats of disease and contaminated water increase, not to mention the lack of proper medicine, healthcare, roads, transportation and communication, food, water, medicine, basic necessities rise on that island, the people of Puerto Rico will lose trust and confidence in fellow Americans that must do more.

We need to give them the hope they deserve, and that hope has to be more than rhetoric and more than patting ourselves on the back as the President has done. It has to be a real commitment. In fact, there is no reason for backpatting. The response so far has been inadequate, lacking the full attention and commitment that is needed. It has been a story of inattention and inadequate strategy so far to meet this deepening humanitarian crisis. The people of Texas, Florida, and throughout the gulf coast and the Southeast who have been affected by the storms have received the full commitment of America. It is what we owe our fellow Americans. That same commitment is owed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. We saw an immediate disaster response there that must also be devoted to Puerto Rico. The emergency aid and full funding made to the victims of those storms in the gulf coast and Florida must be given to Puerto Rico, and I am hopeful that a relief bill will be fashioned this week.

I am also hopeful that the financial control board that has responsibility for Puerto Rico’s internal finances can be given the flexibility and that the Government of Puerto Rico will be given the flexibility that is needed to deal with this disaster—nothing less than a full court press, a full plan and strategy, and a plan that directly addresses the needs of Puerto Rico in so many areas. On transportation, what is the plan to ensure that basic goods can move from one end of the island to another? Right now the roads are unusable. By all accounts, getting things across the island by road is impossible. Radar and navigation systems at the airports are down. The transportation mechanism of the island is literally ripped apart. So potable water, food, and fuel are impossible to move where they need to go. That state of affairs is inadequate and unacceptable in America in 2017. Electricity and power are disrupted across the island. What will be done to restore power and electricity throughout the island? What will be done to make sure that diesel is available there and in the Virgin Islands? Many of the machines essential for lifesaving at the hospitals cannot be powered by generators alone. That state of affairs is inadequate and unacceptable in America in 2017. All five of the hospitals in Arecibo, one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities, are without power. Many other hospitals are shuttered as well. Clinics are closed. Mosquito-borne diseases are a real and present danger. Deadly ailments in contaminated food and water may cause serious and possibly deadly diseases.

As these diseases spread, what is the plan to stop this kind of inadequacy? It is unacceptable in America in 2017. As to communications, or the basic ability to talk to each other, to reassure each other, and to know what is going on with relatives and loved ones and friends—no wonder that angst and alarm are spreading beyond Puerto Rico to Connecticut, where those relatives and friends live now—this kind of lack of communication is unacceptable in America in 2017. What is the plan to correct it? On public safety, looting and theft are becoming more prevalent. As the days drag on, law and order will deteriorate unless public safety is addressed more effectively. There is another kind of challenge. A dam that is about to burst and could cause havoc in surrounding areas is a clear and present safety danger that illustrates again the weakness of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Towns throughout the island have suffered severe flooding. So housing and basic shelter are inadequate. What is the plan to rebuild? Payment for medicines cannot be made unless cash is available, and the lack of electricity means that the ATM machines are not working. If there is no cash for residents to buy basic goods, including food and water, how does the administration plan to solve this problem? This kind of inadequacy is unacceptable in America in 2017.

Rebuilding will require a long-term commitment. It will require a plan and a strategy, not just over the next 24 hours or 24 days but 24 months and longer. It must deal with a financial situation that is a storm of its own. As I described it yesterday, this storm is not a natural disaster. It is a manmade disaster, the result of healthcare and tax programs that are beyond any fault of the people of Puerto Rico. It is not of their doing. Vast swaths of resources have been swept away in Puerto Rico, including many of the attractions important for Puerto Rico’s tourist industry. The same is true, for example, on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. Tourism is a key component of Puerto Rico’s economy. It may take years and possibly decades to restore. What is the long-term plan? What is the strategy for Puerto Rico and for the Virgin Islands? There needs to be a kind of Marshall Plan for rebuilding because the devastating damage done is no less than what Europe suffered as a result of World War II.

We have an obligation—certainly, no less than rebuilding our European allies—to restore and rebuild Puerto Rico. All of these natural disasters and the financial manmade storm come as Puerto Rico continues to endure the struggles of its internal financial commitments that are necessary for the lifeblood of the economy. Jobs and economic progress must be the end goal. With so many questions about the President’s plan or lack of plan, I am struck by the need for this body and this Congress to take the initiative. I think we will need to begin action, begin hearings, and begin a process of building a plan if the administration fails to present it. I believe, too, that we share so much with the island of Puerto Rico in people who have come to Connecticut and other parts of the country that we will find a ready and enthusiastic audience and support for such an effort. In the past 2 days, after silence through much of it about Puerto Rico, the President seemed to blame the island itself, its financial struggle, other storms, and even the size of the ocean. There should be no excuses. There must be a call to action. I thank the Coast Guard, our military, the first responders, the rescuers, and relief organizations—from Americares to the Red Cross to Save the Children—that have devoted so much and given so much in these times of crisis. They have been stretched thin. They have performed with courage and generosity and so have the donors who have come forward in Connecticut and around the country. People are calling my office asking what they can do for the people of Florida and the gulf coast and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. They are all fellow Americans, and we owe it to them to do more and do better to make sure that we keep faith with our fellow Americans. I thank you, Mr. President, for the opportunity to talk about this subject.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Mr. President, let me turn now to this question of the Puerto Rico disaster. It has now been a week since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and 3.5 million American citizens are living amidst a horrifying state of devastation. When I was chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the affairs of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and America’s other territorial possessions, I got very involved in the economic issues on the island. But I come today to make a humanitarian plea to my friends and colleagues in the Senate. It is a plea not about economics. It is about people— fathers and mothers, children, grandparents, teachers, nurses, and thousands of veterans who served their communities and their country proudly. They are dealing with something that is almost unimaginable—this horrifying set of circumstances that they now find dominating their lives.

The press accounts describe Puerto Rico as looking like a war zone. Millions of people on the island are without power, running water, and fuel. The few hospitals that are open—only 20 for the entire island—struggle to care for the injured and the sick. Many doctors and first responders are unable to get to their workplaces because their lives, too, are thrown into chaos, and 911 still doesn’t work. Cell service and power are down. The airport in San Juan barely functions now, after days of being completely off the grid. It is almost impossible for us here in this city to imagine this. We have the basic infrastructure and health and safety that we take for granted every day. Only one word sums up the state of the islands—demolished. It is almost impossible to gauge the full extent of the devastation. Nobody knows how many lives have been lost or how many homes and businesses have been damaged beyond repair, and how many lives have been shattered. What is known is that this disaster has affected the lives of every single one of the 3.5 million individuals living on the island and the millions more on U.S. mainland, who have had sleepless nights worrying about loved ones. This is a humanitarian crisis on American soil. It is past time to step up and provide immediate aid to help these Americans—not only for Puerto Rico but also for the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has also been clobbered by these storms. It is not just the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do. A few hours ago, I joined 35 of my colleagues in sending a letter to the President, and we requested a number of concrete actions.

There are other additional steps in my view that are vital. So I want to just tick through some of them on the floor. First, the President has to issue a full disaster declaration for all of Puerto Rico, not just parts of it. Currently, 24 municipalities in Puerto Rico have yet to receive individual disaster assistance. This means that people who have lost their homes in these areas are ineligible for Federal assistance. This is unacceptable. Next, while the President rightfully revised his original disaster declaration so that the island will not have to split the cost of disaster relief with the Federal Government for 180 days, the President should continue this assistance until the island is back on its feet. The administration also needs to include funding and necessary emergency support for the Puerto Rico Medicaid Program in any emergency request. Medicaid in Puerto Rico doesn’t work the way it does in the 50 states, where it is a guarantee of care for vulnerable, low-income people. Puerto Rico’s Medicaid Program is built on a block grant, which means that in times of crisis, resources might not be there when it is needed most. Even before the disasters, Puerto Rico was close to depleting its Medicaid supplemental funding. When it does, it will have nowhere to turn to pay for medical care for many of its most vulnerable. In my view, this is a perfect example of why block grants—as contemplated by the bill that we considered in the Finance Committee this week—Graham-Cassidy-Heller—and vital programs like Medicaid don’t mix. It is a recipe for disaster. In addition, there are expired tax provisions unique and vital to Puerto Rico’s economy, and they ought to be extended with any disaster relief package in order to give workers and businesses certainty and predictability. This includes tax incentives for producing goods in Puerto Rico and rebates for taxes on exported rum.

In my view, if this is done properly and laid out in a proactive way, it will give predictability for the future and make a difference—an important difference to a lot of people on the job. It is also vital to get Puerto Rico’s electric grid up and running and provide power generators in the meantime. This isn’t simply a matter of recharging phones or turning televisions back on for news updates. Going without power is life-threatening. Perishable food goes bad. Those with diabetes can’t refrigerate their insulin. Hospitals have a difficult time running essential medical equipment, like dialysis machines or heart monitors. Air conditioners are useless, which is especially dangerous for kids and seniors given the hot, humid temperatures and the limited supply of safe water. Another necessary step is to help ensure that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands receive assistance as quickly as possible, and that would include a short-term waiver of the Jones Act. The Jones Act is an important policy for ensuring a vibrant U.S. maritime industry and for our national defense. But in times of disaster it is more important to get supplies to the impacted areas as quickly as possible. The government has granted such a waiver in Houston and Florida, and it is, in my view, beyond comprehension that they haven’t done the same thing for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Finally, the administration needs to mount a full-court press to rebuild the islands’ roads, ports, and airports. Once aid arrives, it is useless if you can’t get it out to those who need it most. As several of my colleagues and I wrote to the President today, our military is uniquely qualified to help Puerto Rico meet some of its critical recovery needs. That includes construction battalions that can repair power and surface transportation infrastructure. I close by saying that the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are desperate for our help. This situation is extreme. Congress and the administration need to act as soon as possible. The cleanup from Maria and Irma is just the beginning. The fact is that these megastorms, fueled by global warming, are going to keep coming, even after the power is restored and the storm damage from Maria and Irma is repaired. There is going to be a lot of work necessary to reverse years of struggle and build up Puerto Rico’s economy and infrastructure. Coming to the aid of our fellow Americans at a time of crisis, in my view, is at the very core of being Americans. At home, I call it ‘‘the Oregon way.’’ Our natural disaster this summer was wildfires. Recently, I was out visiting fire camps that stretched from our northern border with Washington State to our southern border with California and many points in between. I met people helping Oregon fight fire from all over the United States. I met Floridians who were there the weekend Irma hit Florida. They were there to help Oregonians deal with fire, when they and their families were worried about what Irma was going to do to Florida. Colleagues, I close simply by way of saying that we should expect no less in our efforts here in the Senate to help our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The American people now have to be part of a mobilization to bring together the enormous resources in the Federal Government to help when disaster strikes. It is a matter of basic fairness and humanity to help protect and restore these American citizens and lands.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI):

Mr. Speaker, last week, Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico. The damage on the island has been described as apocalyptic: buildings destroyed, a major dam at risk of collapse, and millions of American citizens looking for help. But 1 week later, we still have not addressed this extraordinary crisis. Congress is not planning to vote on providing aid until next week. President Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico owing money to Wall Street, as if that should be a priority right now. President Trump and my friends on the other side of the aisle who control Congress need to start treating this with the urgency it demands. My district is home to more than 20,000 Puerto Ricans. Over the last week, they have told me that they don’t understand what is going on in Washington. Why is this taking so long? This President talks a lot about putting America first, but why isn’t he doing more to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico? Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my constituents, bring a bill to the floor. Let’s get this done, and let’s address the humanitarian crisis that is besetting citizens in Puerto Rico.

Rep. French Hill (R-AR):

Mr. Speaker, it has been 8 days since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and impacted the lives of Americans there, who are now in dire need. Power and communications remain down; food, water, and fuel are scarce; infrastructure continues to crumble; and Americans are dying. Tackling recovery is urgent. I was pleased to see that President Trump has asked Brigadier General Richard Kim to go to the island and seek to lead. Because of the island’s topography and isolation, this isn’t a Houston, this isn’t a New Orleans or a Florida. Rescue and relief isn’t as easy as moving a convoy of power company trucks down the interstate highway. Logistically, this is much more difficult. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I believe it is time to set up a joint task force, with one person in charge, able to make decisions and not get ‘‘stuck on stupid,’’ as one Army general famously said. That general, Russell Honore, turned around the government floundering after taking charge of Joint Task Force Katrina. On the ground, the joint task force can coordinate all public and private relief efforts, starting with putting our National Guard to work, reopening the air tower, clearing the roads, and opening a chow hall. I continue to pray for Puerto Rico, but each of us must understand our beloved island’s crisis is very different.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX): H.R. 3823, the Disaster Tax Relief and Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2017.

Specifically, this underlying legislation helps to address five targeted and meaningful tax provisions that provide relief and make it easier for people to recover and to return to their homes and to make long-term decisions from a money and tax perspective. It will allow hurricane victims to keep more of their paychecks, deduct more of the cost of their expensive property damage, and provide more affordable and immediate access to retirement savings should people decide that they would choose to go that direction at this difficult time in their life. This legislation also encourages more Americans—Americans who see what is happening—and companies to be able to donate, to donate to those who are in need by temporarily suspending limitations on the deductions for charitable contributions for hurricane relief efforts this year. This is an important step, and it removes obstacles that might be in the way for the public to get involved and to help their fellow citizens. Taken together, these five tax provisions go a long way, we believe, in helping these people recover from these storms. The rule also makes clarifications to ensure Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are treated equitably in all tax sections of this bill. I spent time this week speaking with the gentlewoman from Puerto Rico (Miss González-Colón) and the gentlewoman from the Virgin Islands (Ms. Plaskett) in talking about not only their immediate needs, but also the long-term needs. Both were vigorous in not only their request for help, but also, equally, I think, balanced in their request for the legislation that would take place today. They represent so many hardworking people, people who are proud people in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and they are looking for a way to work through not only where they are, but, in looking forward over the long term, about how they are going to put their islands back together. I have had many phone conversations with both of them over the last 48 hours. They have asked for our prayers, they have asked for our help, and I have pledged to do both. But I told them that I believe this House of Representatives would very carefully understand their special request at this time because the islands are under increased pressure simply to get planes that would land to allow not only the bringing in of emergency supplies, but also taking out people who would need to come ashore, for those that might be children, elderly people, or the sick.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL): Disaster Tax Relief and Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2017

Now it is time for Congress to do our part to help our fellow Americans in my district and in similar communities throughout my home State of Florida, in Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands…

Mr. Speaker, hardworking Americans in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico need Congress to act. On Monday, this bill was derailed by political games, posturing, and name calling. I hope that will not be the case today because my constituents and those in other communities like my district don’t have time to wait. This tax relief package deserves bipartisan support from my colleagues. I want to thank Chairman BRADY and the Ways and Means Committee staff for allowing me to shape this legislation for the benefit of south Florida residents, especially those in Monroe County who were hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. I want to thank Chairman SESSIONS and the Rules Committee for making in order my amendment that will provide additional benefits that are critical for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, they are facing a terribly difficult uphill battle to rebuild their communities. I stand in complete solidarity with my friends Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico, and will work to get them everything they need to rebuild their communities. I hope for their sake we can finally get this done today.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA):

These hurricanes left massive devastation in their wake, and the ongoing situation in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are dire. The situation not only justifies but demands a comprehensive package of incentives and relief to help these communities and their residents get back to their feet… We can do much more for our American brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, especially given that the administration continues to drag its feet in terms of sending an emergency supplemental request. That should be done forthwith. We can do better, and we must do better… We need to do more to help our fellow Americans recover from these tragedies. Therefore, I intend to oppose this legislation.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ):

I am pleased to support aid to those affected by Harvey, Irma, Maria, and I will continue to do so. We urgently need to deliver relief and assistance to those currently impacted by Hurricane Maria in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where the entire island has lost power and many are without water. I can’t support a bill before us today which is not even close to providing the robust relief that Puerto Rico needs. You know it, and we know it. The Congress and this administration need to step up, help Puerto Rico recover. I plan to reintroduce legislation to extend the earned income tax credit to residents of Puerto Rico, and I hope my colleagues will support it

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX):

I want to speak specifically to the hurricane tax relief. As I do so, let me particularly make mention that I had hoped this bill would have an extension of the CHIP program and the community health centers. Maybe we can work on that, because I know in many of our communities impacted by the hurricanes, those elements are important, community health centers, and, certainly, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. I do want to make a point to say that I wish we could have gone further. I know that there were at least 21 different tax credits or exemptions that we could have had to help those who are impacted by the hurricanes, but these, I want to cite and say that I appreciate them being utilized for my constituents now. The bill would provide tax credit deductions and other relief to taxpayers in disaster areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Most measures would apply to taxpayers in parts of Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY):

While some of the proposals in the bill are needed, these measures are necessary, but far from sufficient to help Puerto Rico recover. If anything, these half steps are an insult to the American citizens living in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is hurting. They do not need legislative lip service passed just so that the majority can claim they are helping. Instead of taking real and meaningful steps to provide much needed relief for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, this bill ignores the challenges they face. Providing personal casualty assistance and penalty-free withdrawals from retirement accounts is commendable, but not for Puerto Rico. Just under half the island is living in poverty, and the average median income is under $20,000. In fact, 67 percent of workers have no money left to save for retirement after paying bills, and only one in five workers is contributing to retirement savings. So I ask you, what savings will they pull from, and how and when will this happen? American citizens in Puerto Rico cannot even get cash out of an ATM without waiting hours in line. Providing funds based on the assessed value of those provisions for Puerto Rico is insufficient. It is a fig leaf offered by Republicans so that they can check it off their list. In order to truly help the many victims affected by the hurricanes, Congress needs to start by providing the economic support required to recover. Mr. Speaker, this bill is unworkable for Puerto Rico as it stands now. I applaud the effort and speed with which this was drafted, but it must be strengthened to truly address the needs of Americans in these disaster areas. Even today, I got a call from the most important medical institution, and they are running out of antibiotics. The veterans hospital that treats 200,000 soldiers who have participated in every war, they do not have access to healthcare. This is how we honor their service? No, Mr. Speaker. Vote down this legislation.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA):

Puerto Rico is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria that is being exacerbated by Trump’s and Congress’ failure to adequately respond. Tens of thousands in Texas and Florida are just beginning to pick up the pieces following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Rep. David Scott (D-GA):

All you have got to do is click on the television and look at what is happening to American citizens in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas. And you are going to put something where they cherry-picked this together to solve this particular problem? There is no sense of urgency here, Mr. Speaker… Let’s treat the American people the way they deserve. There is no better time. You are talking about expanding the help. Our people, American citizens in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, deserve for us to have a complete flood insurance program, not piecemeal.

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