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In Harvey's wake, Congress should skip drama and get to work

Tribune News Service • Sep 5, 2017 at 12:00 PM

The following editorial was published in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on Aug. 31:

Ordinary citizens with extraordinary community spirit have been a bright light amid the dark clouds and devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. "Mattress Mack," the furniture store owner offering shelter to evacuees, the "Cajun Navy" volunteer search-and-rescue crews and countless others with generous hearts have reminded us during a time of political turmoil that this nation is mighty because a crisis unites us.

A Congress returning to the Capitol needs to heed the example of Harvey's heroes and come together to find solutions. A daunting agenda with tight deadlines lies ahead of lawmakers — passing hurricane relief, avoiding a government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling and dealing with the call for a Mexican border wall.

The nation needs to focus on the massive natural disaster that is Hurricane Harvey. It does not need lawmakers to inflict manufactured crises on it at this time. That means acting like adults and taking care of the debt ceiling, government funding and disaster aid without attaching conditions to their passage — such as building the border wall.

This important to-do list either must or should happen before September's end, due to fiscal calendar constraints. Lawmakers returning to Washington on Tuesday after the August recess will need to summon competence and resist the temptations of partisanship.

This is not a time for political point-scoring or nail-biting midnight votes. Americans are weary after violence in Charlottesville, the battle over health reform and the sense of instability fostered by the rapid turnover of presidential staff.

For those lawmakers who say that government should be run like a business, here's a chance to act like a private-sector chief executive confronting a serious challenge. A seasoned CEO would focus on fundamentals, lead by example and steer clear of stormier waters.

Harvey's growing roster of individual heroes should inspire lawmakers to rise to the occasion. But if not, then the hurricane's stunning swath of destruction should. Houston is the nation's fourth-largest city, with up to 30 percent of Harris County, where most of its residents live, underwater.

Floods are also notoriously difficult to recover from. Floodwaters take time to recede. Many people do not have flood insurance. And disaster aid often prioritizes infrastructure repairs over individual homeowners.

Getting Houston back on its feet is a massive undertaking whose scope compels the federal government to lead. Lawmakers will need not only to monitor the recovery, but innovate to overcome disaster aid's well-known limitations.

They also should swiftly delve into the precarious finances of the National Flood Insurance Program, which has long been on the Government Accountability Office's list of "high-risk" federal programs because big storm expenses have outstripped incoming premiums. Congress faces an end-of-September deadline to reauthorize this program to ensure continuity of operations.

Members of Congress who want to keep their jobs should avoid the dreadful optics of allowing political fights over the wall or other partisan issues to slow down hurricane aid or shut down the government in the midst of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster response. In addition, it is always irresponsible to send shudders through global markets by threatening to not raise the debt ceiling. But it would be especially reckless now.

Debate over Trump's divisive border wall can wait. Congress not only needs to find common ground, but to follow Houstonians' lead and move to higher ground.

STAR TRIBUNE (TNS)

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