The federally-run National Flood Insurance Program is that rare issue that can bring politicians in different camps together.
That's what happened in 2014, when Democrats and Republicans from Louisiana and elsewhere joined forces to revisit a previous reform effort that was causing rates in flood-prone areas to rise beyond reason, creating the possibility that people would no longer be able to live in their homes, nor sell them.
The main point of friction back then wasn't so much ideology but credit. The bill was being considered as then-U. S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, Republican, was mounting a partisan-themed challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who had always been a leader on this front. Landrieu pointed to her work on the subject as evidence that she put state needs first, and Cassidy sought to show that, if elected, Louisiana would gain a conservative without losing an advocate for local needs.
But the debate over flood insurance can also tear existing alliances apart. That's what appears to be happening now that the program has officially expired and must be renewed. Congress has twice missed the deadline to pass a new bill, instead adopting short-term extensions, the latest of which runs through Dec. 22.
The House has passed a bill, crafted with plenty of input from Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson Parish. Scalise set out to come up with something that the program's chief congressional skeptic, Texas U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, could abide. Hensarling chairs the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over flood insurance, and even this year's historic floods in his own state didn't shake his general belief that the government doesn't belong in the business of insurance and that rates should reflect risk, even if that makes insurance unaffordable to many.
Scalise, who joined his Democratic House colleague Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, in pushing the 2014 revision, sits in a unique spot as both a high-ranking member of the chamber's leadership and a representative of a coastal district full of homeowners who'd face steep cost hikes were the program to bring rates more in line with actuarial risk. His compromise with Hensarling was designed to prevent policyholders whose homes flooded multiple times in the past from being thrown out of the program, but it would raise rates for those who make multiple claims in the future. Hensarling had favored factoring in past claims and raising rates on homes with multiple claims more quickly.
The bill passed in the House, but it failed to attract Richmond's support. That part wasn't so surprising. What was unusual was that two of Scalise's fellow Louisiana Republicans, Garret Graves and Ralph Abraham, also voted no. Graves even testified against the bill, arguing that it wouldn't shore up the program's finances but would hit homeowners too hard.
Nor does this version have backing from Louisiana's two Republican senators, Cassidy and John Kennedy, each of whom is working on a different version alongside Democrats whose state have also suffered catastrophic flooding.
Among the other provisions, flood insurance backers hope to include in a new bill are measures to encourage a shift to the private market, although there are concerns that companies would be able to cherry-pick customers and leave the feds responsible for higher-risk homes. There's also a push to encourage more people who aren't required to purchase insurance to buy relatively low-cost policies, something that gained currency after recent floods hit purportedly safe areas, including in Louisiana and Texas. There's also pressure from environmentalists to change government policies that essentially underwrite new development in flood-prone areas.
The good news here is that this is one issue in which members of Congress are willing to look beyond hardened party lines and be practical. The bad news is that coming up with a fix requires the sort of clear-eyed, responsible policy analysis that is in short supply in Washington these days.
The decidedly mixed news is that representatives from more and more states are engaged — if only because more and more of their constituents are experiencing extreme weather.