jenna_pope_sandy
Jenna Pope

Within a few hours, the House is expected to finally address aid for Sandy victims, after GOP leadership broke a promise to deal with it on Wednesday. But, true to form, the House is doing as little as possible. And, true to form, because of ongoing inaction, the government will end up losing more money on the deal than it should have.

CNN reports on today’s vote:

The House is poised to vote Friday on a $9.7 billion Superstorm Sandy aid package after delays over fiscal cliff bickering and a warning from federal officials that funds are running out. …

Lawmakers are expected to pass the first portion Friday and weigh in on the remaining $51 billion in broader aid on January 15.

When the House first began poring over the president’s aid proposal, Republicans sniffily insisted that it was too large, that they could only in good conscience allow about half of the $60 billion Obama wanted. You know, because fiscal watchdogs and screw the liberal East Coast and so on. Now, the brand-new 113th Congress will vote on only a fraction of that amount, $9 billion or so to pay flood insurance claims.

The reason that the House is even doing this little is that FEMA is about to go broke. From Reuters:

FEMA has told Congress that unless its borrowing ceiling was raised, “funds available to pay claims will be exhausted sometime around the week of January 7, 2013,” the agency said in a one-sentence statement.

The FEMA program is essentially the only U.S. flood insurer for residences. It has a $20.8 billion ceiling for borrowing authority.

FEMA estimated Sandy-related flood losses of $6 billion to $12 billion in November, far beyond its cash and $3 billion in untapped borrowing authority.

Today’s vote, then, is an emergency step to ensure that FEMA has the money to pay existing claims. As I said: as little as can possibly be done.

But the irony is that, had Congress acted sooner on addressing climate change, FEMA wouldn’t be as strapped as it is. Had Congress years ago addressed the urgent need to update flood insurance premiums, it might not have to take emergency action today, because FEMA would be more appropriately funded.

Last summer, Congress finally approved premium updates, meaning that those in high-risk areas would start paying higher rates. As I wrote at the time:

[G]iven the well-documented rise of sea levels (or whatever the incorrectly political term is), adjusting insurance rates to account for likely flooding will save the government money over the long run.

I’m only good at predicting super-obvious things.

FEMA's risk map for the hardest-hit area of Staten Island.
FEMA’s risk map for the hardest-hit area of Staten Island.

Those new, higher rates only kicked in on Tuesday — and, understandably, those whose houses were gutted by Sandy aren’t excited about the prospect.

While many homeowners are beginning to rebuild without any thought to future costs, the changes could propel a demographic shift along the Northeast Coast, even in places spared by the storm, according to federal officials, insurance industry executives and regional development experts. Ronald Schiffman, a former member of the New York City Planning Commission, said that barring intervention by Congress or the states, there would be “a massive displacement of low-income families from their historic communities.”

After weeks of tearing debris from her 87-year-old, two-story house on the bay side of Long Beach, N.Y., Barbara Carman, 59, said she understood the need to stabilize the flood insurance program, but she compared coming premium increases to “kicking people while they’re down.”

Which is lamentable. But it’s also an example of an external cost — the government absorbing the loss when a house is predictably destroyed by a flood — being internalized by the person who chose to live in the high-risk area. Ms. Carman is one of the unfortunate people caught in the transition.

Had Congress acted years ago, however, updating FEMA maps and the concomitant insurance rates, it would have not only lessened the effects of Sandy for people like Barbara Carman, but it would have provided FEMA with more funds to pay out in response. Forethought is not Congress’ forte.

Current American politics being what they are, even today’s small, crucial step is spurring predictable reactions from conservatives, like the troglodytic reactionaries at the anti-everything Club for Growth, who urge Congress to vote no on the proposal.

The House (and then the Senate) will finally take action on Sandy relief today. It will be too little, too late, at a loss, and over inane opposition. Which I probably could have predicted as well.

Update: As expected, it passed the House. The bill will go to the Senate next.

Update: The Senate passed it, too.