NEW ORLEANS – U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy is facing a political problem as he lays the groundwork to seek billions of dollars in federal recovery aid for Louisiana flood victims.
Cassidy, the first-term GOP senator, was in the U.S. House in January 2013 when he joined 189 other Republicans to vote against a $50 Billion Dollar aid package for Hurricane Sandy victims.
At the time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, blasted the GOP House members for partisan politics at its worst. Now that Cassidy and fellow Louisiana Republicans Steve Scalise and John Fleming are asking for federal disaster relief and rebuilding grants for their state, some in the national media are calling them hypocrites.
But Cassidy says he’s being consistent.
“I voted for Sandy relief,” he said. “What I didn’t vote for was $20 billion or so tacked on as pork unrelated to Sandy relief…. I want this to be related to disasters, and obviously, we’ve had a disaster in our state.”
Indeed, Cassidy voted for an early version of Sandy relief that would have cost $17 billion. But as it wound through the legislative process, that plan ballooned to more than $50 billion and ended up including money for NASA and oil spill research, along with other programs that appeared to have little to do with Sandy’s destruction.
Conservative critics of the Sandy spending called $16 billion of Community Development Block Grant money split among the affected northeast states and New York City “pork,” because of the flexibility for locals to spend the housing aid.
But CDBG Disaster Relief funds provided $10 billion for the single largest housing recovery program in U.S. history in Louisiana after Katrina and Rita, the Road Home, and Cassidy said he’s in favor of that type of funding for the flood victims of 2016, too.
“CDBG does have tremendous latitude in how it can be spent, but in a sense that increases the complexity. That's not my job, that's the state's job. My job is to advocate once the state has given us that figure,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy questions whether a Road Home-like program, run by the state government for all homeowners affected by the storm, would be the best use of the CDBG money this time around. He said he always prefers the money to be controlled at the most local level practical.
After Katrina, city and parish governments were destroyed along with their homes and infrastructure. But in this case Cassidy says he’s confident the parishes affected by the flooding all have governments that are strong enough to stand up recovery programs of their own.
The senator said state officials are still trying to estimate the full scope of the damage so the congressional delegation can make a unified request to the rest of the Congress. Cassidy said he’s begun meeting with Senate Appropriations Committee staff and has a meeting scheduled for Monday with Gov. John Bel Edwards to hash out some details.
Still, it may take some time to get to come up with a final ask, he said.
“It’s based on estimates, and what you don’t want is lowball, right? And it may take a while for that estimate to be made,” Cassidy said, noting that road repair cost estimates require soil samples and other time-consuming work before total damage can be calculated.
Cassidy also called on President Obama to champion Louisiana’s needs in Congress and especially with the Corps of Engineers, which he wants to move quickly to shore up flood protection in the Amite River basin.
“The president’s visit focused national and international attention on the disaster; that was good,” Cassidy said. “We will not know how good the visit is, though, until we see if the president steps up as George W. (Bush) did after Katrina…. We need his personal involvement to make sure the money is there and that the Army Corps obeys the Commander in Chief.”