Disaster Relief Debate Might Be As Much About The Border Wall As It Is About Puerto Rico

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Posted: May 13, 2019 5:30 PM
Disaster Relief Debate Might Be As Much About The Border Wall As It Is About Puerto Rico

Source: AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill Friday that is poised to face a considerable obstacle in the Senate because of a disagreement between Republicans (led by President Trump) and Democrats over the amount allocated for Puerto Rico.

But there’s another issue related to the bill that has gone largely underreported and could play a role in how easily the bill makes it through the Republican-controlled Senate: the inclusion of $4.5 billion toward building a wall at the southern border.

Trump has been critical over the last several months of the amount of disaster relief funding Puerto Rico has received in the past, particularly relevant given reports that Puerto Rico was improperly using millions of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to pay government employees.

The president’s criticism ultimately led to at least one HUD official's resignation. However, the agency now notes that “tight fiscal controls” were put in place to help eliminate waste and fraud as the agency approved Puerto Rico’s latest disaster recovery plan in March. 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD Raphael Williams told Townhall that the agency is now working with grant recipients to track the money dispersed throughout every phase of the rebuilding process.

“Every American taxpayer, and every disaster victim deserves the efficient, effective, and accountable use of disaster funding,” Williams said. “To achieve that aim, for the first time in the short history of HUD’s disaster recovery program, the Office of HUD’s Chief Financial Officer is working with grant recipients to put safeguards in place to limit waste, fraud, and abuse before any money is expended. The CFO is instituting real-time monitoring and strict financial controls over the funds. The goal is for HUD to track the funds at every level, in real-time; from the moment it leaves HUD until the moment it is spent rebuilding vulnerable communities. This is a large task, but HUD and the grantees are up to the challenge – we owe it to the American people and disaster victims to get this right.”

With HUD stepping up and taking more of an oversight role, some of the concerns surrounding funding to Puerto Rico are surely mitigated. But there’s more to the disaster relief bill than simply making sure the money goes where it’s needed.

The bill, which would send billions to victims of floods in the West, hurricanes in the Southeast and historic floods in the Midwest, now heads to the Senate where political roadblocks remain.

The House bill contains not just the $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico but also several hundred million in construction assistance to help the island rebuild from Hurricane Maria in 2017 – aid that Trump firmly opposes.

In addition, Trump is pressuring Republicans to insert $4.5 billion for a wall on the southern border – a no-go for Democrats.

Trump is still trying to find ways to fund his border wall due to Democrats' successful moves to thwart his previous attempts. Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) predicted inclusion of border funding may make a deal on disaster recovery funding even harder to reach.

“I don’t have a clue why this president thinks that that will somehow prompt folks to vote for this,’’ he told reporters last Thursday. “In fact, it will set it back considerably.’’

Some Republicans however, including the president himself, are more optimistic, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushing for a resolution before the Memorial Day recess.

Trump himself tweeted his own upbeat thoughts Friday, writing, “Great Republican vote today on Disaster Relief Bill. We will now work out a bipartisan solution that gets relief for our great States and Farmers. Thank you to all. Get me a Bill that I can quickly sign!”

It will be interesting to see if the issue of border wall funding becomes a make-or-break part of disaster relief negotiations and if its exclusion is something Trump is less confident about quickly signing.

Sarah Lee is a freelance writer and policy wonk living and working in Washington, D.C.