Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cowing of Congressional Courage: Flood Maps in a Warming World

“Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate - but not yet!”

--Saint Augustine, Confessions, 398 CE

In 1968, Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act, which was designed to reduce federal disaster relief by creating a mechanism to insure vulnerable property on our nation’s shoreline. However, as the Heritage Foundation recently noted, while the national flood insurance program (NFIP) was paved with good intentions, it has ended up promoting development in flood zones, thus paradoxically worsening the effects of natural disasters and saddling taxpayers with the bill in the process.

These subsidies have largely benefitted wealthy Americans. As detailed in a report from the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that over 40 percent of subsidized coastal properties grandfathered into the NFIP program are worth over $500,000, and 12 percent are worth more than $1 million. Nearly a quarter of the subsidized properties in the CBO’s coastal sample were vacation homes.

Furthermore, as Mindy Lubber, the President of Ceres, noted, “Instead of encouraging behavior that reduces risks from extreme weather events, [NFIP is] encouraging behavior that increases these risks.”

After decades of advocacy by environmental groups, budget watchdogs, and consumer organizations, Congress appeared to commit to fundamental reform of America’s national flood insurance program when it passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012

Biggert-Waters sought to stabilize NFIP finances and protect taxpayers by requiring NFIP to raise rates (through a multi-year phase in) to reflect true flood risk. That process involved updating antiquated flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (according to the Government Accountability Office, as of 2008, half of NFIP’s maps were more than 15 years old, and another 8 percent were 10–15 years old).

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, FEMA has launched an ambitious effort to modernize the flood maps, taking into account the threats of climate change on coastal areas. While it is essential that FEMA ensure the accuracy of these new mapsRockport, Mass. successfully challenged FEMA’s methodology, which should affect maps throughout Cape Ann—the ultimate goal of accurately gauging risk and refashioning insurance rates accordingly is critical to taxpayers and our environment.

And yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of Congress—including Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) and the entire Massachusetts delegation—signed on to the 2012 reform, Congress is now doing it’s best Saint Augustine impersonation—expressing outrage at the effects of its own reform and vowing to roll it back.

The reaction of Congress reminds me of a Seinfeld bit about the check at the end of a meal:

Never liked the check at the end of the meal system, because money’s a very different thing before and after you eat. Before you eat, money has no value. And you don’t care about money when you’re hungry…Then the check comes at that moment. People are always upset, you know. They’re mystified by the check. “What is this? How could this be?” They start passing it around the table, “Does this look right to you? We’re not hungry now. Why are we buying all this food?

Indeed, while Congress was more than willing to engage in disciplined, principled changes to NFIP in 2012, now that the bill has come due, the response is one of shock and outrage.

This is Congress at its worst—trying to have its cake (a courageous vote for reform!) and eat it too (rolling back that reform at the first sign of its effect). That’s why I found myself in complete agreement with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) this week when he called out members of his own party for their similarly guileless effort on the debt ceiling. Cruz, a darling of the Tea Party, said that the his colleagues decision to allow a debt ceiling increase to proceed with 50 votes, only to then turn around and vote against the bill, was a “show vote,” and “trickery to the constituents.”

The lack of courage, the bald-faced bait and switch of legislators heralding reform and then shirking from its effects—this is the type of behavior that leads to pitiful Congressional approval ratings and, more importantly, cynicism about the exercise of American Democracy.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has warned against rolling back NFIP reform. One hopes that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) takes a similar stand when the bill to gut Biggert-Waters comes before the House this week.

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