It was good news for disaster victims all over the country and in Puerto Rico when the U.S. Congress early Friday finally cleared an impasse formed around partisan policy disagreement and approved a massive budget measure that includes almost $90 billion in disaster relief.
A considerable amount of that money will come to Texas to pay for Hurricane Harvey aid and recovery.
The bill includes a third round of federal disaster relief that had been discussed since the U.S. House of Representatives voted 251-169 in December to approve an $81 billion disaster aid package.
Friday’s $89.3 billion in disaster relief includes $15 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct flood mitigation projects and about $28 billion to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Community Development Block Grants, among other items.
The relief bill also includes $25 million for programs funded under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The 1987 federal law classifies students displaced by natural disasters as homeless and requires school districts to transport them even if they are living far outside the district’s boundaries.
The $25 million will allow districts to apply for reimbursement for those transportation costs, officials said.
The work’s not over for lawmakers with Friday’s successful action, however. We argue that despite the time, work and politicking it took to pass this bill, the real struggle has just begun.
That struggle is ensuring the vast amounts of public money being spent on behalf of, and at the burden of, taxpayers is being spent wisely and efficiently.
We’ve seen enough evidence to doubt that it is and to argue that federal and state agencies charged with the direct administration of disaster recovery money can’t be trusted to act in the taxpayers’ best interest without very close legislative oversight.
For example, The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a $156 million contract to deliver 30 million meals to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to an Atlanta-based entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past, The New York Times reported earlier this month.
As anyone could have predicted, the one-woman shop failed to complete this massive logistical mission, forcing the government to start over.
Meanwhile, the five months it took for the state of Texas to get immediate, temporary housing programs underway after Hurricane Harvey make us worry the same sloppy contracting probably also is happening here and now.
Congressional Democrats want to blame the Trump administration for the recent meals fiasco, but the problem is systemic and predates Trump by years.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, a bipartisan congressional investigation found that a failure to secure advance contracts led to chaos and potential for waste and fraud, the Times reported.
Apparently that’s still the case.
This is not just a matter of some bad contracts slipping through in the rush to respond soon after a disaster.
The effort to replace Galveston public housing demolished after Hurricane Ike is a HUD-funded disaster recovery project almost a decade in the making. Yet the contracts awarded so far and so long after the crisis raise numerous questions about how well recipients of federal millions were vetted, and whether they’ll be able to provide what the taxpayers bought.
It’s good that lawmakers have approved a large amount of money for people struggling after several natural disasters. We urge those lawmakers to do those people and rest of the taxpayers another good service by keeping a close eye on these dollars by demanding fiscal responsibility and accountability from state and federal agencies doling out the dough.
Allowing waste, fraud, abuse and simple dimwitted decision-making in such programs is, more than any other cause, what makes normally generous Americans come to resent helping their neighbors.
Failing to combat it and correct it undermines the whole concept of cooperative democracy and makes us a weaker nation.
• Michael A. Smith