In wake of flooding, Louisiana Republicans take heat for 2013 votes against Sandy aid

BY JEFF ADELSON

​The Advocate

August 24, 2016

When Superstorm Sandy swamped parts of the East Coast in late 2012, Louisiana lawmakers would seem to have been easy votes to get in support of federal aid to the victims.

Representing a state that is still using federal money to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina — and which has seen more than its share of lesser disasters — there was little doubt the Louisiana delegation had firsthand knowledge of the importance that funding from Washington could play in a recovery.

But three Louisiana Republicans — half the state’s House delegation — voted against a bill to fund the recovery efforts in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, earning the ire of some of their colleagues in the Northeast.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot in the wake of a week’s worth of devastating floods in parts of Louisiana, some of those East Coast lawmakers say they won’t make Louisiana suffer for the votes of its representatives back then. But they see Louisiana’s plea for federal help now as highlighting the hypocrisy of the earlier votes by Rep. Steve Scalise, now the third-ranking member in the House; Rep. John Fleming; and Rep. Bill Cassidy, who now represents the state in the Senate.

“They don’t get it until they get hit on the side of the head themselves by a two-by-four and everything’s supposed to stop. All of a sudden it’s, ‘This is different; this is oranges and apples,’ ” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from Paterson, New Jersey.

The votes on the $50 billion Sandy aid package — which passed, but not without substantial Republican opposition — have come under increased scrutiny as the flooding in Louisiana has subsided and questions have been raised about what the state’s long-term recovery will look like and how it will be funded.

Some in the delegations that were scrounging for votes in January 2013 said they won’t punish Louisiana residents for their representatives’ votes then or try to play politics with disaster aid. That, they argue, should have been the approach the Louisiana delegation took.

“Unlike what some of Congressman LoBiondo’s colleagues did after Hurricane Sandy, he stands ready to help the people,” said Jason Galanes, communications director for Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican. “It was something he tried to implore his colleagues back when we were debating the Sandy emergency supplemental (appropriation): Americans have always risen to help each other, and a disaster is a disaster. We shouldn’t stand in the way of our fellow citizens recovering from a disaster.”

Those who voted against the Sandy aid package argue it was laden with projects unrelated to the recovery in the Northeast.

Fleming, of Minden, said he backed the initial House version of aid and supported help for the Sandy victims. But the aid bill returned from the Senate with lots of projects that had nothing to do with recovery from that hurricane, he said, as some lawmakers used the cover of crisis to insert their pet projects into the bill.

“Somebody had to put their foot down,” Fleming said. “That bill had more pork than a Cajun cochon de lait.”

Officials are still determining how much money will be necessary to recover from a week’s worth of flooding that damaged scores of thousands of homes worth billions of dollars in just nine of the 20 parishes where a federal disaster was declared. But most expect that some sort of long-term federal aid will be needed to make the region whole, money that will have to be appropriated by Congress on top of the dollars FEMA can automatically spend on immediate assistance and aid to local governments.

Gov. John Bel Edwards outlined some of what that request might contain in a letter Tuesday toPresident Barack Obama, and he is expected to meet with the state’s congressional delegation early next week to come up with a firmer plan.

Pascrell, who said he’s going to do “everything as a congressman I can to help the people of Louisiana,” said he wished that state’s delegation had taken a similar approach when it was his state that needed assistance.

“Not one dime is going to be delayed to the Baton Rouge area or to Louisiana. I can’t say the same thing about 2013. Money was delayed,” he said. “We had to fight from the beginning for the dollars. While that’s not going to color my response, I’m not going to forget it. I don’t forget. There’s always a day of reckoning. That’s Jersey style.”

The Sandy package was a complex political fight. House Republicans balked at the full package, arguing that about $33 billion in proposed long-term aid included projects unrelated to the storm itself. At the same time, members of the Louisiana delegation said they always supported the $17 billion included in the package to ensure FEMA had the resources it needed immediately.

Most House Republicans initially sought to get across-the-board cuts in other government spending to offset some of the long-term aid in the package. When that effort failed, most voted against the final bill.

“There were billions of dollars that would have gone to other states that were not impacted, other individuals that weren’t impacted,” said Scalise, of Metairie, about the final aid package.

Similar issues arose in debates on bills to fund the recovery after Hurricane Katrina, when appropriations for things like alligator farms became an issue, Scalise said. Those items were stripped from the bills before they passed.

Should money be needed for efforts over and above what FEMA already is doing, Scalise said the bill would be focused on disaster recovery — though possibly including disasters in other states to build support.

Asked whether he would vote against the bill if it included money for projects that are not disaster-related, Scalise said he couldn’t answer “hypothetical questions about a bill that doesn’t exist.”

In the Senate, then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, was one of the champions of Sandy aid, and Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, voted in favor of that chamber’s version of the package, which would have included an additional $10 billion in funding beyond the package that finally passed.

While Scalise, Cassidy and Fleming voted against the Sandy aid package, Pascrell pointed to Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, as influential in helping get the bill passed.

Fleming, in a press release Tuesday, criticized several projects in the Sandy bill, which he said included $12 billion for grants in 47 states and Puerto Rico as well as money for emergency generators at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia and to relocate roads in wildlife refuges.

“With more than 60,000 households affected (in Louisiana), it is critical that federal emergency spending augments the immediate needs for shelters, meals, medications and initial cleanup efforts,” Fleming said. “Emergencies are not the time and place for extra spending. Funds must go directly to the emergency at hand.”
Criticism of the three representatives’ Sandy votes also came from closer to home.

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat who is one of two dozen people running to replace Vitter in the Senate this year, blamed the Scalise, Cassidy and Fleming votes on conservative dogma.

“People needed help, and they’d rather give a political speech than a helping hand,” Campbell said of those who opposed the aid package. “This is about helping people in need. That shouldn’t be political.”

He also suggested those votes could hinder efforts to get money now for Louisiana.

“When you’re not willing to help your neighbors, you shouldn’t be surprised if your neighbors aren’t willing to help you,” Campbell said.

Cassidy’s office said it is those pointing to the Sandy vote who are playing politics.

“Now is not the time for politics. It is the time to work together to ensure our neighbors have the resources they need to recover and rebuild,” said John Cummins, communications director for Cassidy.

In the larger political picture, Pascrell also blasted Republicans who criticized Obama for remaining on vacation and not visiting the affected areas before Tuesday. With top FEMA personnel on the ground and working on the response, the executive branch is doing what it’s supposed to do, he said.

Congress, on the other hand, is in the midst of a five-week vacation of its own.

“I can’t wait to get back and vote yes, to whatever the package is,” Pascrell said. “I know it’ll be smart. We’ve got a great president, who had some vacation time — which, by the way, hasn’t delayed one dime of aid.”

“You know what’s delaying one dime? Our vacation. Isn’t that ironic?” he said.

Posted August 24 2016 at 12:00 PM Permanent Link

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