We Need Reform, Not Bailouts

October 23, 2017

Mr. President, as we speak our brothers and sisters in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas are recovering from a string of devastating hurricanes.

Over one hundred people have lost their lives because of these storms. Many more are struggling to get by day to day.

The crisis is most acute in Puerto Rico, where thirty-five percent of the population still does not have access to safe drinking water. Four out of five Puerto Ricans do not have power.

The people of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas have responded with great tenacity and creativity to this disaster. I wish the same could be said for the politicians in Washington, D.C.

Once again, this body is poised to fail the American people.

Instead of helping the victims of these disasters through responsible aid paired with lasting reform, Congress has rushed to its favorite “solution”: Billions in new spending, with little accountability or oversight.

If this $36.5 billion aid package passes, it will mean more money and power for government programs that in some cases left us vulnerable to these disasters.

If it passes, the politicians and lobbyists will pat themselves on the back for doing a good deed—and then move on to the next billion-dollar spending opportunity.

Meanwhile, the people of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas will be left to pick up the pieces. Puerto Rico in particular has to contend with the effects of a devastating storm, and decades of malfeasance that have left it $74 billion in debt.

This crisis calls for emergency aid, yes. But more than that it calls for true reform.

That’s why I’m voting ‘NO’ on this short-sighted bill.
Because it’s easy to caricature a vote against emergency aid as callous or cruel. But it’s hard to do the hard work of meaningful reform.

. . . And it’s harder still to defend these packages when their contents are exposed to the light of day.

If you were evaluating an emergency aid package, you might reasonably expect it to direct all its spending to programs that actually help the people of Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas.

But this proposal does not direct all its money to broad-based recovery efforts. Not even close.

Just under half of the $36.5 billion in new spending would bail out the National Flood Insurance Program.

In the Houston area, 17 percent of homeowners were enrolled in NFIP. In Puerto Rico the numbers are even worse: Just 5,600 Puerto Ricans are enrolled in NFIP, less than one percent of homeowners.

That means ninety-nine percent of Puerto Ricans won’t get anything at all from this $16 billion to NFIP . . . But then again, it’s not clear that NFIP recipients get much from NFIP to begin with.

The National Flood Insurance Program is the triumph of good intentions over sound policy.

Its generous subsidies were supposed to reduce the need for federal aid after massive storms. Instead, NFIP encourages thousands of Americans to live in the most dangerous real estate in the country.

NFIP sells flood insurance at rates well below that of any reasonable private insurer.

As a result, its policies do not accurately reflect the risk of living in flood-threatened areas. These government policies encourage Americans to live in precisely those areas where their livelihoods—even their lives—can be swept away in an instant.

Economists refer to this perverse incentive as “moral hazard.” And in more senses than one, that’s just what the National Flood Insurance Program is—a hazard to America.

It is distinctly immoral for the government to subsidize housing deep in the nation’s floodplains, or on the edges of its coasts. Instead of building your house on a rock, the government wants you to build on the sand.

And NFIP pays out claims for properties that have been swept away not once, not twice, but many times before.

Homes that have been flooded multiple times make up just one percent of NFIP policyholders, but account for more than one-third of its claims. This has cost taxpayers more than $12.1 billion in payouts, according to the Congressional Research Service.

When Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston last month, it submerged a house that had been flooded twenty-two times since 1979. The house is valued at about $600,000. The government has spent $1.8 million to rehabilitate it.

No private insurance company would offer insurance on the terms that NFIP offers: Such a company would endanger its policyholders and run out of money.

And that is precisely what has happened under NFIP. The program is $25 billion in debt, and routinely blows through its statutory debt limits.

The emergency aid package Congress is considering today would cancel $16 billion of NFIP’s debt, no questions asked.

Congress isn’t making NFIP bring its actuarial practices into line with reality. It isn’t even appropriating new funds for another failed program . . . That, at least, would be business as usual in Washington.

Instead, Congress effectively is giving a debt amnesty to the National Flood Insurance Program. It is absolving NFIP of its sins . . . and making American taxpayers do the penance.

So that’s an example of what’s in the bill. Let’s consider what’s not in the bill.

If we want to be responsible leaders in this moment of crisis, we need to provide long-term reforms as well as short-term assistance. We need to provide a full meal to those affected by these storms, not just a sugar rush.

But this bill does not include any reforms that would help Puerto Rico attain long-term stability or climb out from under its $70 billion in debt.

It doesn’t even attempt to reform the graft-ridden electrical utility authority, which through a combination of neglect and profiteering has left millions of Puerto Ricans in darkness. Without electricity, Puerto Rico can’t power hospitals, clinics, food banks, or even sewage systems.

And it doesn’t repeal the Jones Act, the protectionist regulation that kept foreign-flagged relief ships out of Puerto Rican harbors for precious days after Hurricane Maria.

Simple reform measures such as reforming PREPA or repealing the Jones Act would provide lasting benefits to Puerto Ricans long after the public’s attention has drifted and the relief money has dried up.

But Congress, true to form, would rather double down on broken laws rather than fix them.

And Congress would rather take on more debt than live within its means.

None of this $36.5 billion in emergency spending is offset by spending reductions to other programs.

And that’s the sad irony of this bill. If the trend of deficit-fueled spending continues, one day soon we will wake up to the cries of our fellow Americans—and we will have nothing to give them in support.

I hope my colleagues will work with me to find a more responsible way to help our brothers and sisters affected by the recent hurricanes.

Congress has the authority to lead—especially over Puerto Rico, where we have plenary power. In this hour of crisis, we are the ones who must act.

If we can only offer money and a pat on the head, it will be our fault when Americans continue to suffer.