Storm recovery funds may hit snag
Battle over border wall could tie up money for farmers hit by Michael.
WASHINGTON — The scene on the ground, recounted Albany U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, “was like a war zone.”
“It was like a 40-mile-wide tornado,” the Democrat said. “Trees were snapped in half. Pecan orchards were pulled up like weeds.”
Eight weeks after Hurricane Michael walloped Bishop’s southwest Georgia district, the veteran lawmaker is scrambling to avert a different kind of disaster: a political one.
He’s one of several Southeastern lawmakers leading the push for Congress to approve emergency federal funding during the hectic final days of its session to rebuild what Michael destroyed.
The effort has bipartisan support: Michael was one of several natural disasters that hobbled communities from California to the Carolinas this year whose cleanup requires extra money from Congress. And even if the storms didn’t hit their districts, most lawmakers are keenly aware that they could need help from Washington one day if a natural disaster strikes their constituents.
But some Georgia lawmakers are worried the funding stream could be stalled by a broader showdown over President Donald Trump’s border wall as newly emboldened congressional Democrats lock horns with the president over funding levels.
The battle royal is threatening to halt all legislating in Washington and potentially lead to a Christmastime government shutdown.
“Those of us from Georgia, Florida and Alabama have got to continue to make it clear that whatever happens, the damage from Hurricane Michael needs to be addressed before we leave” for the holidays, said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, whose South Georgia district was also hard-hit.
‘Most vulnerable hour’
The damage from Michael is stark.
More than 30,000 Georgians requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of the storm, while the state’s agriculture sector suffered a direct hit of more than $2.5 billion, according to a recent University of Georgia estimate, during a bumper crop year. When it comes to providing storm relief, Georgia’s congressional delegation has stood together.
Working with the offices of Gov. Nathan Deal, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and local farm groups, the state’s federal lawmakers have asked their colleagues for upward of $2.5 billion to help farmers account for crop losses and battered communities rebuild their infrastructure.
The federal money would go hand in hand with a $470 million package that Georgia’s General Assembly OK’d in a special session last month.
In addition to expanding a U.S. Agriculture Department program that Congress created to offset losses from hurricanes and wildfires during 2017, Georgia lawmakers want help for timber and pecan growers, who lost entire forests that will take years to regrow to maturity.
“This storm hit farmers at their most vulnerable hour during harvest and it is critical that we assist these producers immediately to ensure there can be a crop in 2019,” the state’s 14 House members wrote in a letter to the chamber’s leaders last week.
Along with Georgia’s two senators and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Alabama and Florida, they have urged their colleagues to attach Michael recovery money to a must-pass government spending bill later this month.
Their case is urgent, they say, because it takes time for federal payments to trickle down to farmers, who need to resolve their outstanding financial issues with lenders before planting their 2019 crop early next year. Even before Michael entered Georgia on Oct. 10 as a Category 3 storm, many farmers contended with strained balance books because of new tariffs and years of low commodity prices.
The stakes are extremely high for rural Georgia, Scott said.
“Agriculture and these crops, they’re the foundation of the economy down there,” he said in a recent interview. “If the farmers don’t make money, the local car dealer doesn’t sell trucks. If the local car dealer doesn’t sell trucks, people at the local car dealership don’t have jobs, and the people at the local restaurants” suffer, too.
Much of official Washington agrees with him. After surveying damage from Michael in October, Trump promised “maximum relief ” for victims, and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said his powerful panel was “prepared to act quickly” to meet needs.
House-Senate negotiators on the spending package have been zeroing in on a deal that includes several billion dollars for cleanup from Hurricane Michael and other 2018 natural disasters, including the California wildfires, according to a congressional aide familiar with the discussions but unauthorized to speak publicly about the details.
Some of that money would go directly to farmers to help compensate for major crop losses, as well as the Department of Agriculture’s rural development assistance programs, which can help repair sewer and drinking water systems.
Congress is also likely to allocate more money to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which could help cities such as Albany rebuild damaged homes, buildings and other infrastructure, as well as to the Small Business Administration for low-interest loans.
But a broader disagreement between Trump and congressional Democrats is threatening to derail the spending package, which would fund about 25 percent of the government through Sept. 30.
Trump and some GOP allies are seeking to capitalize while the GOP still controls both chambers of Congress and are insisting that Democrats agree to $5 billion for the border wall.
Invigorated by last month’s House takeover, Democrats are unwilling to give Trump much ground. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is being pressured by her members not to sign off on any money, while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer previously expressed a willingness to allocate $1.6 billion for border fencing — but not a wall.
“This isn’t actually about border security; this is the president trying to manufacture a shutdown to fire up his base,” Schumer said in a recent Senate floor speech.
The funding deadline was pushed back to Dec. 21 because of the death of President George H.W. Bush, but the high-level stalemate threatens to halt all legislative work on Capitol Hill and potentially lead to a Christmastime government shutdown or a short-term funding patch.
It’s possible congressional leaders could decouple the hurricane money from the broader spending bill, but that is not yet being widely discussed.
“The President has made clear that at least $5 billion is needed for construction of the border wall and he has advocated strongly for additional disaster recovery funding, including for those impacted by the devastating hurricane and wildfire seasons,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is time for Congress to accomplish both and send it to the White House for signature.”
The escalating rhetoric has worried some Georgia lawmakers, who say their colleagues should not adjourn for the year without clearing a full hurricane cleanup check. Money in FEMA’s disaster recovery account has helped bridge the gap for now, but they say Congress needs to act quickly to give farmers — and the bankers who lend them money — certainty.
“If we don’t get a package together, it means that farmers are not only going to lose this year’s crop but next year’s crop because they won’t be able to plant for next year,” Bishop said.
Others aren’t as worried. The state’s senior Republican, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, said Georgia lawmakers are well-placed across key Capitol Hill committees, and Congress almost always comes through with needed money after natural disasters.
“I’ve been here 20 years, so I only have 20 years of experience in Washington, but the only thing I worry about right now in terms of agriculture is that we haven’t passed the farm bill yet,” said Isakson, referring to a separate agriculture policy bill.