House Flood-Insurance Bill Awash in Confusion

LONGMONT, CO - SEPTEMBER 16: Robert Pandolfi of Longmont, Colorado uses a shovel to direct water in the basement of his boss' home as residents clean up in the wake of a week of heavy flooding on September 16, 2013 in Longmont, Colorado. More than 600 people are unaccounted for and thousands were forced to evacuate after historic flooding devastated communities in Colorado. 
National Journal
Billy House
Feb. 24, 2014, 5 p.m.

An elec­tion-year vote to deal with steep hikes in flood-in­sur­ance premi­ums is put­ting House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers back in fa­mil­i­ar ter­rit­ory. Once again, they’ll need sup­port from Demo­crats to en­act a bill that would re­peal re­cent re­forms in­ten­ded to re­pair a fed­er­al pro­gram soaked in debt.

But this time, un­der the pro­cess set up by Re­pub­lic­ans to bring a Wed­nes­day vote, if enough Demo­crats re­fuse to go along, they could risk be­ing blamed for the meas­ure’s de­feat. For their part, key House Demo­crats were not say­ing what they’ll do.

“Al­though there have been pro­duct­ive con­ver­sa­tions with Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, I still have sig­ni­fic­ant con­cerns that the meas­ure will not provide the ne­ces­sary re­lief to those fa­cing skyrock­et­ing flood in­sur­ance premi­ums,” said Rep. Max­ine Wa­ters, D-Cal­if., a lead­er of the ef­fort to ad­dress the prob­lems. Mean­while, Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er’s of­fice wasn’t say­ing wheth­er many Demo­crats will vote for the GOP bill.

As of Monday, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers who have been block­ing a vote on a Sen­ate-passed bill had sched­uled their own meas­ure on Wed­nes­day’s sus­pen­sion cal­en­dar, mean­ing it will re­quire back­ing from two-thirds of the mem­bers present to pass. In oth­er words, some of the 199 Demo­crats will have to go along to get a con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate on its bill.

The House meas­ure re­peals pro­vi­sions of a bill en­acted in 2012 and co­sponsored by Wa­ters and former Rep. Judy Big­gert, R-Ill. The already-passed Sen­ate bill would delay but not re­peal the 2012 law’s ad­just­ments to rate maps for the Na­tion­al Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram — which is more than $24 bil­lion in the red — for four years.

Some House Re­pub­lic­ans want to per­man­ently re­in­state grand­fathered flood-in­sur­ance rates, which they ar­gue would help sta­bil­ize the real es­tate mar­ket and provide a re­fund for people who have had large flood-in­sur­ance rate in­creases due to the sale or pur­chase of a home.

Still, some con­ser­vat­ive groups are press­ing law­makers to op­pose the bill. They say the Big­gert-Wa­ters Act — against the back­drop of a long-term budget crisis — rep­res­en­ted a ma­jor step in the dir­ec­tion of fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity by fix­ing a pro­gram that is tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in debt.

“This bill rep­res­ents a fun­da­ment­al be­tray­al of the free-mar­ket prin­ciples and fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity the House lead­er­ship claims to em­brace,” said R.J. Lehmann, a seni­or fel­low at the R Street In­sti­tute, a liber­tari­an think tank.

But Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, R-La., who is run­ning for a Sen­ate seat and has po­si­tioned him­self as a lead­er in the ef­fort to re­solve skyrock­et­ing flood-in­sur­ance premi­ums, said in a state­ment that “sup­port for this bill has been over­whelm­ing.”

Wa­ters’s of­fice, mean­while, said the GOP le­gis­la­tion would re­peal pro­vi­sions of the 2012 law that would raise in­sur­ance rates for poli­cy­hold­ers who are “grand­fathered” in­to rates be­low ac­tu­ar­ial value. Wa­ters also warned that the bill con­tains pro­vi­sions that, as writ­ten, may not guar­an­tee the af­ford­ab­il­ity of flood in­sur­ance for many poli­cy­hold­ers. Un­less those short­com­ings are ad­dressed, Wa­ters said, she will con­tin­ue to press for a floor vote on the Sen­ate bill, which is co­sponsored by 235 House mem­bers.

The back-and-forth could mean that House mem­bers might not see a fi­nal ver­sion of what they are asked to vote on un­til right be­fore it comes to the floor.

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