Why 3 S.C. Republicans voted no on latest disaster relief bill

Soldiers and National Guard organize aid for the Santa Ana community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Thursday.
Soldiers and National Guard organize aid for the Santa Ana community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Thursday. AP

South Carolina Republican Reps. Mark Sanford, Jeff Duncan and Ralph Norman all said last month they were open to voting yes on hurricane relief packages as long as they didn’t include unrelated provisions.

On Thursday, when presented with the second installment of aid to help natural disaster-ravaged parts of California, Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida, each lawmaker voted no. The bill passed, 353-69. All 69 no votes came from Republicans.

The South Carolina lawmakers’ votes show just how difficult it is, and will be, for fiscal conservatives to rally behind legislation that spends money without corresponding cuts to other programs.

This is just the second of what is expected to be several subsequent aid packages as the federal government is compelled to respond to three hurricanes and historically devastating wildfires that hit areas of the country in swift succession.

It also demonstrates how the definition of “unrelated provisions” is tenuous and open to interpretation.

In September, when Republicans put the first round of disaster relief funding on the floor, the $15.25 billion was included in a legislative package along with an extension of the nation’s borrowing limit and three more months of government funding. Sanford of Mount Pleasant, Duncan of Laurens and Norman of Rock Hill all voted no. They chafed not at the price tag, but the vehicle.

“We reached debt ceiling in May, and the Treasury ought to show us a plan,” Duncan told reporters at the time. “You can’t keep borrowing money. We’re going to be $22 trillion in debt, and I’ll tell you, the folks in South Carolina are concerned we’re not doing enough to address our deficit spending and our debt.”

Sanford and Norman each said in September they would even be open to voting for hurricane relief money without immediate offsets.

“I think things always ought to be offset ... (but) it doesn’t have to be perfectly timed,” said Sanford, explaining that “pay-for’s” could be found at a later date.

“I will vote for a clean bill, just not with the pork that’s put on it,” said Norman, adding that he was “all for” an emergency aid bill without offsets.

The $36.5 billion disaster aid package on the House floor Thursday was, generally speaking, “clean.” It only included money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund to address damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, plus funding for wildfire suppression efforts.

It also included some subsidized loans to Puerto Rico, where the majority of residents are still without electricity, and debt forgiveness for the National Flood Insurance Program, which is struggling financially and needs a robust reauthorization before the year’s end. Both are directly related to the outcomes of the disasters that have occurred over the past month.

The House’s staunchest fiscal conservatives have argued that the Puerto Rico loan payment won’t ever be returned, as the territory continues to deal with financial problems. They also called the flood insurance allocation tantamount to a $16 billion bailout.

Sanford and Norman fell into this category, saying these two provisions disqualified them from supporting the underlying bill.

In an interview with McClatchy, Sanford said the $16 billion debt relief to the National Flood Insurance Program was “unprecedented,” and faulted GOP leaders for not including components of the reauthorization that the House Financial Services Committee had recently adopted.

“It opens up this new really frightening pattern of just simply ‘forgiving debt,’” said Sanford. “If it was as easy as just wiping it away, I guess we ought to do it all the time. That $16 billion just got added to the national debt.”

As for Puerto Rico, Sanford added, “How in the world will you get paid back by a government that already has a financial control board running it? I think it’s not the kind of loan that most bank would grant.”

In a statement to McClatchy, Norman agreed.

“I support disaster relief efforts for the people afflicted by the recent natural disasters in our country. However, leaving the taxpayer on the hook for $16 billion without structural reform to the National Flood Insurance Program is irresponsible,” said Norman. “Tying this reckless measure to disaster relief for American citizens is callous and cruel.”

Duncan declined to comment on his no vote but he likely opposed the measure for similar reasons.

Reps. Trey Gowdy, Tom Rice and Joe Wilson, all Republicans, voted for the bill. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat, was absent and did not vote.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain