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JULIETTE KAYYEM

A storm of a fight

Congress should revamp federal relief, but not before helping victims of Hurricane Sandy

Dennis Kane stood above the charred remains of his destroyed home in the Breezy Point section of Queens.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dennis Kane stood above the charred remains of his destroyed home in the Breezy Point section of Queens.

It might seem that a disaster was averted by the last-minute fiscal-cliff deal. But the wrath of House Republicans has simply moved to a different disaster: last October’s Hurricane Sandy. If there is any sign that the short-term agreement to prevent a tax hike on the middle class is just a prelude to skirmishes on every front, it was evidenced that same night when the Republican-led House — to the utter amazement of just about everyone, including Republicans from Northeastern states — chose to table a Sandy funding package approved by the Senate on Dec. 28. Essentially, because of conservatives’ frustration over a tax increase for wealthy Americans, devastated Americans will not see immediate relief for Sandy’s wrath.

By itself, it’s an unimaginable form of partisan payback given the extent of the Sandy-related claims. The details of how House leadership went from “99 percent” certainty of a vote on the Sandy package, as one analyst declared on Tuesday, to abandonment are still murky. But even if the House moves quickly to make amends, as Speaker John Boehner indicated might happen later in the week, the mere delay is a bad sign for future victims of disasters.

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Congress was expected to provide compensation for victims of Sandy based on an established metric of burden-sharing between the federal and state governments. The notion that there exists a social contract between the government and victims of disasters is so prevalent that emergency relief generally has raised very little partisan bickering once a tragedy occurs. During Hurricane Sandy, even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke bread with President Obama.

So when the House Appropriations Committee responded to the Senate’s $60 billion package with a leaner $27 billion proposal, the consensus was that a reasonable middle ground would be determined and the money would flow. That was before the House voted on a large tax increase on Tuesday. House Republican leaders didn’t seem to have the heart to vote for a big relief effort at the same time, even though members of their own party were waiting in anticipation.

The White House didn’t even need to have another fight with House leadership, as Republican representatives from New York like Peter King and Michael Grimm spent Wednesday in a shell-shocked rage over their own party’s cruel display of ideological fortitude.

The House leadership claims that there was unnecessary pork in the $60 billion Senate proposal, but that’s a ruse. The House surely anticipated some compromise between the two versions. It chose not to vote instead. Thus, the National Flood Insurance Program will bump up against its borrowing limit by the end of this week, meaning that only a small percentage of the nearly 140,000 Sandy-related claims will get paid.

This whole episode will only distract from the debate we should be having, which is whether the entire system of federal relief isn’t due for an upgrade as the number of disaster declarations, and their costs, keeps rising. The concern is that if the federal government simply pays back those who don’t get insurance or who build homes too close to a shoreline, or provides relief to localities that don’t protect critical infrastructure, then it may be encouraging risky behavior.

A number of substantive changes to the disaster payment process have been considered to provide a range of incentives to alter the policies of local governments and the choices of individuals who don’t take long-term risks into account. The government can use funds to encourage better planning, demand resiliency, and minimize avoidable damages rather than just writing a check.

All of these systemic proposals are now on hold as the victims of Sandy wait for the House to settle on a number, any number, that will bring relief based on a social contract they have every right to expect. The ground rules should change, but not for those who suffered under the old regime.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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