Hurricane Harvey may have left Texas, but it’s just now making landfall in Washington, D.C.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s proposal, aired on Sunday, to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to allow funding of disaster relief for the victims of Harvey may be acceptable, if not exactly welcome, to most of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But the conservative wing of the Republican party is already giving off intimations of deadlock.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, chided Mnuchin for backtracking on the debt-level policy:
“I find it interesting that the secretary has long called for a clean debt ceiling and now suggests that we attach something to the debt ceiling vote,” Meadows said. “There should be a clean bill; it’s called the Hurricane Harvey relief bill.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that the issue of tying Harvey aid to a debt-ceiling, or putting it in a spending bill, will be thrashed out in the coming days. But he did not shirk the possibility that the White House will not easily get its way, and that Washington may soon have its own Hurricane Harvey.
“For the Congress to understand fully, and the country to understand, that these are two separate branches of government, is a good thing,” he said.
Whether such a seminar on the American system of checks and balances would be really edifying at this time is doubtful. The people have had numerous lessons in coequal governance in recent years. They have come to understand, pretty well, that the executive does not dictate to the legislative or vice versa.
And they have witnessed how the inability or refusal of one branch or one party to get along with the other and overcome their differences can lead to other, more advanced lessons in governance, like funding cutoffs and federal shutdown.
This time around, Congress is already faced with partial shutdown if it doesn’t quickly move to authorize spending past September. It would mean that close to a million federal employees would not receive their paychecks on time, some federal services would be suspended indefinitely, and national parks would close.
That would mean major inconvenience and hardship to a lot of people around the country. But for some people — those who live in the flood-devasted regions of Texas and Louisiana — the consequences would be truly dire.
For if the coequal branches of government fail to speedily allocate the necessary funds to assist them in the recovery, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be denied the wherewithal to channel that vital assistance to thousands of people.
That is something that the people of Texas and Louisiana, and Americans in general, will absolutely not put up with.
President Trump and Secretary Mnuchin evidently understand this. The president has backed up his personal visits to the area with a $7.85 billion request for relief funding.
More than that, the administration has reportedly reached out to Democrats for cooperation in getting a bill passed; the president will even talk with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to try to work out a modus vivendi on this and other pending matters, including a tax cut and health care, after a month-long hiatus from chatting with the Republican senator after a blowup over stalled legislation. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump is supposed to meet with leaders of both parties — his first face-to-face encounter with leading Democrats since January.
House Republicans already introduced a bill on Sunday night that matches the White House request. That might facilitate a vote on the emergency funding package as early as Tuesday when congressmen return from the summer recess.
“These funds are needed, and they are needed now. I expect the House to move rapidly to approve this assistance,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said Sunday night.
Frelinghuysen said something else too, equally important: “It is clear that this recovery will be a long haul — and additional assistance will be necessary in the near future.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott answered that question on Sunday: “That aid will not be [enough],” Abbott said. “It is very clear, the president has made it clear, Congress is making it clear, this is just a down payment.”
Abbot prefaced his estimate of the full cost by noting that comparisons to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, are misleading. Actually, it’s worse than either.
“Listen, the population size and the geographic size is far larger than Katrina and, I think, Sandy combined.
“We have over 5 million people who were affected by this. It’s not just the flooding in Houston, it’s the hurricane swath all the way from Corpus Christi over to Beaumont,” the Republican governor said. “So, it’s going to require even more than what was funded for Katrina, which was about $120 billion.” He predicted the total cost of recovery would reach “probably $150 to $180 billion.”
However, as noted above, some people do not seem to understand the urgency of the Harvey funding. To be sure, they are not against it; they just aren’t willing (yet, at least) to sign on to a higher debt level to make it possible. How much that could delay or disrupt the help, as well as other functions of the federal government, is impossible to say at this point.
But they dare not deadlock the Congress on this. Help must come. Whether it comes attached to a higher debt level or not. But it must come, and soon.