Report By: Nina Rai
Washington, Jan. 02, 2013
The US House of Representatives adjourned late Tuesday night without holding a crucial vote on the $60 billion superstorm disaster aid bill. It prompted New York area members, cutting across party lines, to erupt in fury at the apparent callousness of the House towards Sandy victims.
On Friday, Dec. 28, the Senate had approved a $60.4 billion aid package by a vote of 61-33 as additional aid for recovery from Superstorm Sandy that battered the coastlines in October of 2012 across New York, New Jersey and to a lesser degree in states of Delaware and Maryland. However, the House Appropriations Committee had drafted a smaller, $27 billion aid package, with a vote expected before Congress' term ending its session.
The current session of the Congress ended officially with the House adjournment on Tuesday without holding a vote on the Sandy aid bill. This in effect meant the said bill will not be acted upon until noon on Thursday, when the 113th Congress convenes and the new Congress is sworn in. It may be noted, legislation in the US does not take place from session to session. So a discussion on the Sandy aid bill would have to start from scratch to be passed as legislation.
Keeping this in view, the House Republican leadership came in for severe criticism and condemnation with one Republican terming the abandoning of voting on the critical Sandy aid bill as a case of “personal betrayal.” Reuters quoting , House Democratic Whip, the Representative from Maryland, said he was deeply disillusioned to learn that there would perhaps be no more voting in this Congress session.
Hoyer bemoaned, "We have millions of our fellow citizens who have been badly damaged by a storm called Sandy." The news agency also quoted another Democratic Representative from New Jersey, Rush Holt who on the floor of the house said "We help each other …We always have. There are thousands of people who are not going back to their homes. They deserve our help."
Along with Hoyer and Holt, others too beseeched the leaders of the Republican Party in the House to think over their decision. However, there were barely any party members in the chamber to listen to their pleas. Speaking to the media, Rep. Peter King, (R-N.Y.) said the decision of the House Speakeris “inexcusable." He said despite being a fellow Republican, he was saying it was a wrong verdict.
Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leaderof Virginia are in charge of scheduling the House. A spokesman for Boehner, Michael Steel said in a statement: "The speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month." However, this assurance would not suffice for the members whose constituencies have been badly impacted by deadly Sandy.
NBC News quoting Rep. Michael Grimm, (R-N.Y.) said he felt it was a case of personal betrayal. "But I think more importantly, when you parse out all the politics, the people of this country that have been devastated are looking at this as a betrayal by the Congress and by the nation, and that is just untenable and unforgivable," lamented Grimm.
A bipartisan group of eight lawmakers had congregated after protesting the move to skip voting on the crucial Sandy after the House voted on Tuesday to pass a bill to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," a bill which passed 257-167 votes.
Superstorm Sandy wrought havoc particularly along the East Coast of the US, right from North Carolina to Maine, leaving 120 people dead in its aftermath. Millions were devastated in what is considered to be one of the worst storms to have ever hit America. Among the states severely battered were New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which were inundated by high winds, flooding and storm surges.
Sandy destroyed and flattened thousands of housing units and businesses in New Jersey and New York. Reportedly more than $2 billion in federal funds have already been disbursed to date on relief efforts for the 11 states hit by the storm, including the District of Columbia. Currently, the states receiving aid from the US government are New York, New Jersey,Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
The House had first contemplated a two-prong bill which would comprise of $27 billion in supplemental aid. This would, however, also include an amendment worth an additional $33 billion. The bill had been so bifurcated to allow conservative Republicans to vote for a base level of additional aid without voting for the total package, as many Republicans were of the opinion that the entire fund did not actually reach those hit by Sandy.
Both Republicans and Democrats whose states were hit by the Sandy were naturally infuriated at the delay in voting on the Sandy aid package bill, which they felt had been drowned in the din of negotiations in recent days over the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal comprising tax hikes and spending cuts. While this naturally held up the relief measure bill, there were many conservative House Republicans who also were against the size of the Senate bill. According to them it contained many unrelated provisions for items that were not emergency requirements.
Many discerning Republicans in Congress point out that the bill contains billions of dollars in spending on projects that has virtually nothing to do with the damage caused by the storm or for infrastructure improvements in the long term that should compete with other discretionary spending. Some of the expenditures considered not relevant were $150 million to rebuild fisheries, including those in the Gulf Coast and Alaska, which are thousands of miles from Sandy's devastation. Then there were expenses amounting to $2 million to repair roof damage on Smithsonian Institution buildings in Washington, something that occurred before the superstorm.
However, there are many other legislators, particularly from New York and New Jersey, who have pointed that rebuilding projects in the long run such as tunnel repairs would be delayed if the full funding were not cleared. According to them, business establishments would not start to rebuild unless they were sure of reimbursement.
Reportedly, Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had said his agency would not be requiring additional funds until spring. But the FEMA money would not suffice to cover everything needed by the states hit by Sandy. For instance, there are claims filed under the National Flood Insurance Program, repairs to mass transit and Community Development Block grants needed to help localities rebuild, all these require huge sums of money much beyond what FEMA funds can cover.