Washington’s worsening political gridlock has blocked federal relief for Georgia and 11 other states hit by hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters more than six months ago. The inaction constitutes “a disastrous failure of the government of the United States,” as Georgia senior Sen. Johnny Isakson of Cobb County aptly put it. “The real disaster,” he observed, “is Congress’s inability to pass a disaster aid bill.”
Isakson and his colleague, Sen. David Perdue, have been relentlessly pushing for Congress to pass the critical funding needed to help farmers and other disaster victims. At a news conference calling attention to the abject failure of Congress last week, the Georgia senators were joined by Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala., Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., whose states have been hit by disasters.
Isakson spoke of the havoc wreaked on Georgia crops ranging from cotton to vegetables and pecans by Hurricane Michael last October. Similarly, there has been devastation from floods in the Midwest and wildfires in California. But the victims are being victimized again by the polarization in Congress, a fact stressed by Isakson who said, “We have Americans hurting, Americans who deserve what they expect from their country.”
The Georgia senators introduced a $13.6 billion bipartisan disaster relief package Feb. 26 with the backing of President Trump but ran into the usual opposition from Democrats who balked, saying there wasn’t enough money in the bill for Puerto Rico. So $600 million was added, approved by the president — and voted down in the Senate on April Fools Day.
“We gave Democrats exactly what they asked for,” a frustrated Perdue said last week. But, he observed, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “decided to change course and hold disaster relief victims hostage in a misguided effort to extract concessions from Republicans on a number of unrelated topics.” Instead of Trump blocking aid to Puerto Rico, Perdue said the president had approved $41 billion in aid after two hurricanes struck the island and has made an additional $50 billion available going forward.
“As a result, Puerto Rico is set to receive three times more funding than Texas did for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and nearly double what was appropriated for Hurricane Sandy in 2013,” Perdue said. “It’s clear this fight has nothing to do with Puerto Rico funding.” He added: “If Democrats truly cared about the people of Puerto Rico, maybe they would listen to them. Puerto Rico’s own representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, said our bill provides exactly what her constituents need.” Even so, the Democrats were not budging, holding to the pattern of opposing Republican initiatives in what is seen as an ongoing effort to gain political advantage leading up to next year’s elections.
The stalemate “is kind of typical of the dysfunction that we see up here all too often in Washington,” said Alabama’s Sen. Doug Jones, one Democrat backing the GOP bill. He had just revisited Lee County where tornadoes killed 23 people in early March, sequel to Hurricane Michael inflicting heavy damage to crops in southeast Alabama.
What a sad commentary that “dysfunction” has become a virtual synonym for Congress. Still, there might be a ray of hope. Senate Republicans floated a proposal to free up Puerto Rico’s access to hundreds of millions of dollars Congress has appropriated but the funds have been released slowly. The White House was on board with the would-be compromise, but aside from the proposal offering far less money than Democrats want, there’s another potential catch in the form of new oversight and restrictions on how the money would be used. To keep the pot boiling, House Democrats are expected this week to pass their $17.2 billion relief plan with millions more for Puerto Rico.
Georgia’s senators and their like-minded colleagues in Congress are giving disaster relief the priority it deserves. We encourage them to keep up this good fight on behalf of hardworking farmers and other Americans who have lost so much through no fault of their own. This is no time for politics as usual.