Americans like to make fun of Congress. It’s a staple of comedy akin to airline food, a joke that was already old by the time Mark Twain rolled around. But rarely have we had cause to mock our elected leaders as we do now, as the least productive Congress in a generation yawns and shuffles out of Washington. As it goes, it leaves behind a stopgap solution to the fiscal crisis — and a complete abandonment of any aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense

Gage SkidmoreJohn Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense

Late last night (at least, late by Congress’ standards), the House voted to approve the ugly, flawed compromise Vice President Biden worked out with Senate Republicans. The vote happened only after a series of representatives took to the podium to laud the body’s fine work and to celebrate a piece of legislation noteworthy in part for simply extending a number of tax benefits that were due to expire. But perhaps the ugliest moment of the year came after that vote, as members representing areas struck by the storm tried to get the House to hold a promised vote on a relief package. It didn’t. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed at majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.); a “leadership aide” put the blame back on Boehner.

Members from New York and New Jersey were furious. From the Times-Dispatch:

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“This is an absolute disgrace and the speaker should hang his head in shame,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

“I’m here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I’m not proud of the decision my team has made,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. “It is the wrong decision, and I’ m going to be respectful and ask that the speaker reconsider his decision. Because it’s not about politics, it’s about human lives.”

“I truly feel betrayed this evening,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

It’s not hard to guess why the House didn’t want to approve an aid package last night. Even after pushing to slash the president’s $60 billion proposal down to $20 billion, Republicans already being lambasted for raising taxes in the fiscal cliff vote (even though it extended existing low rates for some 99 percent of Americans) were undoubtedly hesitant to be seen as then OKing billions in relief to New York City liberals. Tax and spend.

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What makes the House’s inaction even more disconcerting is how it would sliced down the aid package in the first place. Much of the tens of billions House Republicans wanted to excise was funding for preventative measures, research and infrastructure that could make future storms less deadly — and costly. Last month, the New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki explained why that response was all-too-common in American politics:

Politically speaking, it’s always easier to shell out money for a disaster that has already happened, with clearly identifiable victims, than to invest money in protecting against something that may or may not happen in the future. [Economist Andrew Healy and the political scientist Neil Malhotra] found that voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention, and it’s only natural that politicians respond to this incentive. The federal system complicates matters, too: local governments want decision-making authority, but major disaster-prevention projects are bound to require federal money. And much crucial infrastructure in the U.S. is owned by the private sector, not the government, which makes it harder to do something like bury power lines.

In this week’s issue, the same magazine lays out what’s needed to prepare New York for a similar storm. In “Adaptation” (subscription required), Eric Klinenberg details how Rotterdam and Singapore have invested in flood prevention — and how far behind the United States is. Take our power grid.

After Sandy, there was a five-day blackout in lower Manhattan, because the walls protecting Con Ed’s substation along the East River, at twelve and a half feet above the ground, were eighteen inches too low to stop the storm surge and prevent the consequent equipment explosions. When I asked [geophysicist Klaus] Jacob about this, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “Just put it on a high platform and use more underwater cable,” he said. “We’ve had it available for a long time now. These are just moderate investments, in the millions of dollars. It’s a small price to pay for more resilience.” …

In recent decades, American utility companies have spent relatively little on research and development. One industry report estimates that, in 2009, research-and-development investments made by all U.S. Electrical power utilities amounted to at most $700 million, compared with $6.3 billion by I.B.M. and $9.1 billion by Pfizer. In 2009, however, the Department of Energy issued $3.4 billion in stimulus grants to a hundred smart-grid projects across the United States, including many in areas that are prone to heat waves and hurricanes. The previous year, Hurricane Ike had knocked out power to two million customers in Houston, and full restoration took nearly a month. When the city received $200 million in federal funds to install smart-grid technology, it quickly put crews to work. Nearly all Houston households have been upgraded to the new network, one that should be more reliable when the next storm arrives. … Creating a smarter, more resilient grid for New York will be expensive, but not as expensive as a future filled with recurring outages during ordinary times and long-lasting failures when the weather turns menacing

That’s just the electrical system. Klinenberg also outlines the various ways the transportation system needs to be protected and possible efforts to stem flooding with offshore barriers. What results isn’t a detailed plan to make New York storm-proof; rather, it’s a portrait of a massive, poorly-understood need.

People affected by Sandy — thousands still without homes or electricity, much less heat and running water — desperately need short-term assistance. They need it yesterday, both proverbially and literally. The storm ravished entire economies, from real estate to boat insurers. But the 112th Congress provided not a single dollar to that effort.

John Boehner, hoping to quell the outcry, promises to have a vote on relief by the end of the month. That promise should be considered as trustworthy as the GOP’s earlier promise to hold a vote on a bill last night. But even if the House does approve relief funding, without a huge investment in research and infrastructure, it’s simply an attempt to cure cancer with a Band-aid.

Which wouldn’t result in our mocking Congress. That would be Congress mocking us.

Update: New Jersey Chris Christie aptly summed up the feelings of everyone outside of Capitol Hill.
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