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Here's how politics might get in the way of Harvey relief efforts


The disaster left by Tropical Storm Harvey will add another item to the long list of issues Congress will have to tackle when it returns from recess in September, but President Trump's threat to shut down government could have an impact on future relief funding.

Trump warned before the storm hit that he would allow a shutdown if legislators did not provide funding for his proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. That could have an impact on future rebuilding efforts in Texas and other areas hit by Harvey.

"When Congress comes back into session this is going to session, this is going to be front and foremost in their minds, helping the people that have been affected by this disaster," said G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. "So Congress ... had a lot on their plate to begin with coming back for the short time, 12 or 17 days, this just adds a new element to getting the work done in September before the new fiscal year begins."

Fortunately, FEMA appears to be funded through September, according to Hoagland. It's the additional funding for the inevitable reconstruction efforts that could pose a problem. The federal government is already low on cash. Reserves are around $50 billion, down from $350 billion in January, according to the Washington Post. To put that in perspective, the damage done by hurricane Katrina in 2005 cost $160 billion, while recovery from Hurricane Sandy cost approximately $70 billion in 2012. It's too soon to assess Harvey's destruction, but an initial assessment by JPMorgan indicates there could be up to $20 billion in insured damages alone.

That means additional congressional funding will be necessary. Texas has strong representation on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and three U.S. representatives who chair appropriations subcommittees -- John Carter, Kay Granger and John Culberson -- but Trump's 2018 budget blueprint makes massive cuts in disaster preparedness.

"That's just shortsighted," said Howarld Learner, the president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "It assumes that we are not going to have disasters and need a response. Unfortunately, as Houston is showing us, we will have disasters and we do need a response."

Hoagland noted the rebuilding effort should be the priority going forward.

"I think what this does is put a lot of pressure, particularly on, quite frankly, the President of the United States," said Hoagland. "I think [a] wall now takes a back seat to this. It's better to rebuild the city of Houston and the infrastructure ... [of] the Gulf area of Texas before talk about a longer term issue of building a wall."

Learner said that, going forward, the government should continue to fund preparedness as a preventative measure.

"When you're talking about programs that are designed to harden the infrastructure of a lot of our communities, to make our communities more resilient, to look at areas in our community where there are some problems and say what can we do today to help improve the infrastructure to make us more resilient to reduce risk? that's good preventative medicine," Learner said. "And cutting those program funds is ... being penny wise and pound foolish."

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