Loathsome politics holds up flood relief

In the wake of President Clinton’s April 22 visit to flood-ravaged Red River valley communities, disaster relief for the victims seemed to be the federal government’s primary concern. Governors, senators and representatives descended on the area, joining the president in pledging speedy passage of relief legislation that could fund the rebuilding of homes, businesses and lives in Minnesota and North Dakota. Now, nearly a month later, the Senate bill is threatened with a presidential veto and the House bill is wallowing in Congress, held up by politics-as-usual dissension.
The problems have nothing to do with flood relief. There is still almost unanimous, bipartisan agreement on the need for vast funding. Congress has gone far beyond Clinton’s promise of $488 million in assistance. A preliminary Federal Reserve estimate puts property damage costs alone at between $1.2 and $1.8 billion. The Senate bill that was passed May 8 included $5.5 billion in disaster relief for the entire nation, much of it slated for the Midwest. The House version offers a similar amount.
Unfortunately, members of Congress couldn’t resist playing a favorite Capitol Hill game: Many used the bill as an opportunity to attach riders forwarding their own agendas. Neither party is innocent — the largest add-on provides $2 billion for Pentagon operations in Bosnia, a measure Clinton supports. But it is two riders included by Republicans that have generated the most controversy.
First, Senate and House leaders, still smarting from the 1995 budget impasse that led to government shutdowns, have introduced provisions to the flood relief bill that would allow the government to keep running, even if Congress and the president can’t agree on a budget. The second controversial rider is an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that would virtually nullify the act in flood plain areas. These are just the most controversial examples, however. Other members of Congress from both parties have tacked on small pork projects in an attempt to circumvent the current budget negotiations.
This kind of politicking has no place in a disaster bill. While the state of Minnesota quickly and cleanly passed a state relief measure, our national representatives were bickering. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., who on April 22 told a Grand Forks crowd, “The whole country wants to make sure people here recover,” has backed his party’s anti-shutdown provision. Meanwhile, his colleague, Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., has railed against all attempts to inject politics into the flood relief debate.
Ramstad is right. Although Americans may often complain about the endless political maneuverings in Congress, we usually understand that it is a necessary evil and all part of the process. In this case, however, victims of the flood need immediate reassurance that the government will support them as they recover from the greatest natural disaster to strike the Midwest in generations. The riders and provisions can be attached to other bills. For now, Congress and the president have a duty to Americans whose lives have been disrupted and who need government help to get back on their feet.