Editorial: Balking at disaster relief, House fails to invest in flood prevention

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 - 9:43 am

When his chamber failed to pass a disaster relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims before the 112th Congress adjourned, House Speaker John Boehner was pilloried by members of both parties, and rightfully so.

Before the clock expired, Boehner could have easily resolved GOP objections to the original legislation, which included spending items unrelated to disaster relief.

Instead the nation had to wait until Friday, after a new Congress seated, for the House to approve a $9.7 billion partial relief package for Sandy victims. Future fights remain on disaster relief measures that could add another $51 billion to the bill.

With the nation confronting continuing deficits – unresolved by the stopgap deal on the "fiscal cliff" – lawmakers understandably are leery about adding tens of billions of dollars to the treasury's debt. Yet by failing to finance flood control projects and programs to protect communities against other natural disasters, Congress is adding to the potential liabilities of the federal government.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Yet Congress, tied in knots by rules banning earmarks, is refusing to invest in even an ounce of prevention, putting lives and dollars at stake.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sacramento's Natomas basin, where 100,000 people reside behind levees that flunk federal safety standards.

State and local taxpayers have already chipped in $380 million to upgrade part of Natomas' levees to meet the federal requirements. But for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start and complete its share of the upgrades, Congress has to authorize the work, and for two years, it has failed to do so.

It is not as though Boehner is unaware of the predicament. Last year, he briefly toured the Natomas basin with then-Rep. Dan Lungren.

He and his staff have been aware that, should a flood occur in Natomas, thousands of lives would be at risk. So would an interstate freeway, an international airport and billions of dollars in property that could potentially tank the National Flood Insurance Program.

He's heard all the arguments. But he hasn't been able to untangle his chamber's prohibition on earmarks, a ban that was intended to weed out unnecessary pork, not vital investments in public safety.

Sacramento isn't the only community paying a price for the House's convoluted definition of an earmark. Congress has received the Corps' "chiefs reports" – the agency's highest level of review of recommendation – on several other flood control and engineering projects.

Yet those projects also sit idle, waiting for Congress to act.

On Thursday, the first day of the new Congress, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento reintroduced legislation to authorize the Natomas project and others with a high level of recommendation from the Corps. House members, including U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock and other Republicans, should join Matsui in supporting this legislation.

Lives of Californians are at risk, as are liabilities to the federal government.

The Bee's past stands

"Make no mistake: Some restrictions on earmarks are needed. Up until recently, both parties in Congress abused the process of quietly funding pork-barrel projects in their districts that had no connection to federal responsibility.

But the language of Clause 9 of Rule 21 passed by the House is excessive. It effectively bans funding for any project 'targeted to a specific state, locality or congressional district.' "

– Sept. 30, 2011

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