03.27.19

Senate Floor Address Of Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy On The Disaster Supplemental Appropriations Bill

On January 16th, over two months ago, the House passed a supplemental appropriations bill, H.R. 268, that addressed the needs of all communities impacted by disasters. 

The House-passed disaster bill provided assistance to help people impacted by Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the Hawaii volcanoes, and the California wildfires.  It provided aid to the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam who were struck last year by typhoons, and the people of American Samoa who was devastated by Cyclone Gita.  And it continued assistance for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to help them continue their recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  

Instead of moving quickly on this package to help those in need, Senate Republicans, at the President’s insistence, held up the House bill because it included assistance for Puerto Rico.  Instead of getting aid to the states that need it, the President chose to delay it over petty grudges, and political concerns. 

The President’s refusal to help Puerto Rico not only delays an important disaster bill that many other states are relying on to speed their recovery efforts, it discriminates against the over 3 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico, and it is wrong. 

This is the United States of America.  We are supposed take care of all of our citizens when there is a crisis, not pick and choose who gets assistance based who we are aligned with politically. 

Puerto Rico needs our help.  A year and a half ago it was hit by two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes.  An estimated 2,975 people lost their lives, homes were demolished, and communities destroyed.  This extraordinary disaster requires a commensurate extraordinary response. 

I am glad we are finally moving to a debate on the House-passed bill, because we need to act.  Unfortunately, the Senate Republican substitute filed last night takes us backward and not forward.  Again, at the President’s insistence, it eliminates critical assistance for Puerto Rico provided in the House bill, as well as assistance to other U.S. territories.   

It eliminates state revolving funds that would help Puerto Rico rebuild damaged water systems and ensure they are resilient for future storms.  It eliminates a 100 percent cost-share for FEMA that would help cash-strapped Puerto Rico access federal aid.  It eliminates money to help ensure Puerto Rico is able to rebuild its electrical grid.  It eliminates $68 million in Medicaid assistance for American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, whose programs face serious shortages due to increased need. 

My friends on the other side of the aisle have claimed that this money is not needed.  They point to previous disaster supplemental bills and argue that we have already addressed the needs of Puerto Rico and we should move on.  This is simply untrue.  Yes, we have provided Puerto Rico with significant assistance, as we should have given the extraordinary nature of the storms that ravaged the island and given the extent of the devastation, but as damage assessments come in and the full picture of the devastation becomes clear, we must continually reassess and provide what is needed to fully recover.    

We do not simply appropriate the same amount of money to each state or territory that is hit with a disaster no matter the level of damage.  We provide what is needed for people to rebuild their homes, their communities, and their lives.

Congress passed six supplemental disaster packages in the wake of Katrina to help rebuild Louisiana and Mississippi because the storm was unlike any we had ever seen, and they needed the assistance coming in over time.  No one at the time would have argued that we stop after the first tranche of funding we provided, and left them to fend for themselves.  This is no different. 

The President reportedly came to the Senate yesterday and made his case for why we should not continue aid to Puerto Rico.  Let me repeat, the President of the United States affirmatively argued we should refrain from helping American citizens in need.  And, of course, like so many things the President says, it was not based in fact or reality.  He claims Puerto Rico has received over $90 billion in federal assistance.  It has not.  He claims it is using federal money to pay off its debt.  It has not. 

Some on the other side of the aisle have also claimed that Puerto Rico has $20 billion dollars in previously appropriated money in the bank that they have failed to spend, and argue we should provide no more until it is drawn down.    

This is also simply false – the bulk of the money to which they refer, which we appropriated over a year ago, is being held up by the Administration in red tape and bureaucracy.  Because of inaction by this Administration, billions of dollars that Congress approved over a year ago for disaster recovery efforts remain in the U.S. Treasury in Washington—not where they belong: assisting the Puerto Rican people.  It is inexcusable. 

This Administration cannot simultaneously hold up recovery dollars for Puerto Rico, and then point to Puerto Rico’s failure to spend it as an excuse not to provide additional assistance.  Yesterday, Senator Schumer and I sent a letter to the Administration about these bureaucratic delays demanding answers.  I ask unanimous consent that a copy of that letter be included in the record.  And just yesterday, the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it will review whether the White House has deliberately interfered with the timely distribution of hurricane funds to Puerto Rico. 

I know firsthand what is like to see your state hit by disaster.  Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, and devastated our state.  People lost their homes, roads were washed out, bridges destroyed, and communities forever changed.  I know firsthand that at these moments, the federal government is a critical partner in the effort to recover and rebuild.  North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, they are all counting on us to get this bill across the finish line.       

That is why, three weeks ago, I put a compromise on the table to create a path forward.  It was a reasonable proposal.  It did not restore everything that had been eliminated from the House bill, but it focused on the most critical proposals, and the immediate needs.  Had Senate Republicans accepted this proposal we would likely have seen quick passage of a disaster bill in both the Senate and House, foregoing the need for a conference, and getting assistance to the people that need it sooner rather than later.  

Unfortunately, it appears that the President will not accept even this reasonable offer.  Instead, he will endanger the entire disaster package because he wants to pick winner and losers.  He wants to decide who gets assistance in the wake of disasters based on his own arbitrary standards, and political grudges.  This is unacceptable.  Where will it end?  Which of our states will the President disfavor next?  Remember that just a few a months ago the President in a tweet threatened to cut off aid to California as they were reeling from some of the worst fires in recent history.  

Congress needs to be the responsible party in the room.  We are an independent coequal branch of government, and we should act like it. 

We must pass a bill that addresses the needs of all communities impacted by disasters and we must do so now.  The needs are pressing.  The people are waiting. 

I will file an amendment today with my recommended compromise.  It provides a responsible path forward, one that allows us to move quickly to get assistance to the people who need it now.  I urge all members to support it. 

Before I yield the floor, I also ask unanimous consent that a statement issued this morning by the Governor of Puerto Rico on this subject be made part of the record.  Without representation in this body, they have no one to speak directly on their behalf on such an important matter, but I urge every member to read what the Governor has to say. 

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