House lawmakers Tuesday passed legislation funding the federal flood insurance program for the next five years with reforms that would make it easier to raise premium rates and to drop policies and allowing private insurers to enter the market.
In a vote divided largely along party lines, the U.S. House of Representatives passed reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, the primary flood insurer for most Americans.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, who was conducting a town hall meeting Tuesday evening, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The legislation — called the 21st Century Flood Reform Act — renews the program for five years, updates federal flood mapping requirements and seeks to spur private-sector participation in flood insurance. The program expires Dec. 8 unless Congress reauthorizes it — a move that still needs to pass in the Senate.
The reauthorization comes at a time when the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program is under stress from increasingly frequent and powerful storms, including Hurricane Harvey.
Many of the reforms seek to make the flood insurance program more financially solvent.
For instance, the reforms take aim at repeatedly flooded properties, which have historically represented about 1 percent of policyholders but as much as 30 percent of the claims, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, a privately funded research group.
The new legislation also requires communities with 50 or more repeatedly flooded properties to implement improved floodplain management. States also would be required by October 2022 to mandate that home sellers disclose flood damage and insurance claims.
Supporters argued the changes, particularly making way for more private insurers to enter the market, could increase the number homeowners carry flood insurance.
“One of the great tragedies that I saw in my native state of Texas, in Houston, was how few people actually took up flood insurance,” Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling told The Dallas Morning News.
“If we had competition, if we had advertising, if people could roll that into their homeowners’ rates, how many more people would have been protected from the ravages of these hurricanes?”
But lawmakers who opposed some of the changes said the reforms could lead to more expensive premiums and price out most Americans from living near the coast.
“This bill will punish lower- and middle-class Americans with increased premiums, surcharges and reserve fund assessments,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, the head Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.
“In the wake of a historic hurricane season that devastated so many communities, it is unconscionable that we are considering a bill that would make flood insurance less affordable.”
Other groups, including Pew, supported most of the changes, but argued the Senate should take actions to encourage flood-prone areas to mitigate for risk before a disaster strikes.
“The legislation falls short of fully fixing the NFIP, which has drawn widespread criticism as being both too generous in its subsidized rates for risky properties and too costly to taxpayers,” said Laura Lightbody, project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.
The organization supported legislation to provide low-interest loans to communities and homeowners for things such as elevation structures or buying out high-risk properties, Lightbody said.
Earlier this year, the National Flood Insurance Program had been more than $23 billion in debt in large part because of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and properties that repeatedly flood and generate flood insurance claims, according to Pew.
After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria this summer, the debt ballooned to more than $35 billion, according to news reports. The House voted in October to give the program a $16 billion bailout, according to reports.