Pass a Harvey emergency bill, not a pork bill

In times of crisis, a prime directive is “do not panic.” Lawmakers need to heed that wisdom as Harvey’s devastation of Houston continues to unfold.

Congress will take up disaster funding next week. Moving resources to parts of the country demolished by a freak act of God is a long-established role for government, and typically, even the stingiest fiscal conservatives are onboard with such disaster aid. Where disputes have occurred, and they’re being refought these days, is over the cynical practice of using emergency relief bills to cram through non-emergency items.

That’s what Congress did a few months after Hurricane Sandy whacked the Northeast. Lawmakers passed a $51 billion relief package in January 2013. While most of the money was for parts of the country damaged by the storm, appropriators stuck in money for Alaska fisheries. Also, two-thirds of the money wouldn’t even go out the door until 2014 or later. That’s not emergency spending. That’s just spending.

It’s bad governing, not to mention duplicitous, to use an emergency process to pass non-emergency legislation. It’s cynical to use the cover of emergency response to fund other priorities.

Cynicism in the face of catastrophe is the norm in Washington. Rahm Emanuel, as former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, laid it out clearly when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you did not think you could do before.”

This is how congressional reporters and lobbyists surely see Hurricane Harvey. One lobbyist, speaking to a reporter, spoke of the “the gift of Harvey” greasing the skids for other GOP priorities.

Republicans need to eschew such thinking and to parcel out disaster aid at a fitting pace through the fitting process.

First, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund has $1.3 billion already earmarked for catastrophes like Harvey. That money can bridge the gap until Congress returns next week.

Second, Congress should quickly pass a narrowly tailored emergency bill. Do not add any unrelated items or include spending that will go out the door in late 2018. A clean emergency bill will have the votes to pass the House through suspension of the rules and can pass the Senate by voice vote.

Maybe Congress could pass a small, urgent bill next week and a bigger emergency bill for a few months from now. There’s no need to cram all the money Houston might need into an immediate bill.

Houston, of course, will need aid in the long run. But money for the long run shouldn’t be passed in a hurry. Harvey recovery money for later years should go through the regular spending process. That starts with authorization legislation by committee and then passage through appropriation bills into law.

Emergencies require quick, discrete action. Panic in a crisis is counterproductive. Exploiting a crisis is immoral.

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