WASHINGTON — Congress punted yet again on overhauling the National Flood Insurance Program, extending the program for two more weeks as part of a broader stop-gap funding deal.
The NFIP has lurched along for more than a year on a series of short-term extensions as lawmakers have deadlocked — and then put off — overhauling the federally run program, which underwrites most flood coverage in the U.S. but has sunk into billions of dollars of debt as the result of a series of destructive hurricanes.
The latest extension is the ninth — the last just a week ago — since the NFIP's last long-term authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2017. The program, overseen by Congress, has to be periodically reviewed and reauthorized by lawmakers.
The two-week extension — passed with little fanfare Thursday afternoon — came as part of a bigger deal to avert a potential partial shutdown of the federal government. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the extension.
The deal puts off a showdown between congressional Democrats and Trump over funding for Trump's massive proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign to force Mexico to pay for the barrier but now wants billions from Congress for construction.
Congress now faces a new Dec. 21 deadline to reach a deal on government funding as well as extend the flood insurance program yet again.
No comprehensive overhaul of the flood insurance program is expected anytime soon. Critics of the program and lawmakers from flood-prone areas whose constituents depend on its coverage have remained far apart on how to shore up the NFIP's finances and put it on sustainable footing.
Retiring House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and fiscal conservative, has denounced the program's built-in subsidies for many high-risk homeowners and has demanded that policyholders pay premiums at market rates.
But steep rate hikes would make coverage unaffordable for many vulnerable families, Louisiana's congressional delegation has argued, and force homeowners to choose between insurance coverage and other essential expenses.
Rising insurance rates could also drive down home prices in flood-threatened areas and wipe out equity for longtime homeowners since buyers would be reluctant to pay high monthly mortgage payments on top of skyrocketing premiums.
Instead, lawmakers from Louisiana and other coastal states have pressed for investments in flood-protection projects, buyouts for at-risk homeowners and better flood mapping to predict flood risk more accurately. Those steps, they argue, would cut down on future payouts from the program during storms.
Louisiana lawmakers see U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat expected to take over the House Financial Services Committee from Hensarling in January, as a far friendlier bargaining partner.
Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy have pushed for a six-month extension of the flood insurance program, which would give Waters several months to staff her committee before facing the next deadline to extend the NFIP in the spring.
Cassidy, Kennedy, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez also proposed a lengthier 10-month extension this week that would carry the program through Sept. 30, 2019.
The U.S. Senate passed that six-month extension last week but the House hasn't yet considered it. Kennedy told The Advocate on Thursday that he's spoken with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, about bringing it up for a vote.
Kennedy said Ryan made no assurances but said he'd be in touch with the senator if things came together. So far, Kennedy said, he hasn't heard back.