WASHINGTON — House Democrats and Republicans came together Wednesday to praise a proposed five-year extension of the National Flood Insurance Program — a rare display of bipartisanship in a chamber normally fractured along party lines.
The NFIP proposal advanced out of the House Financial Services Committee in a 59-0 vote, prompting those at the hearing to break out in applause. The process is far from over, but Wednesday's action signals the first major display of compromise on a program that has been plagued with short-term extensions in lieu of a long-term deal.
House leaders are hoping to fast-track the bill through the chamber and advance it to the Senate. The latest temporary extension of the NFIP — the program's 12th since 2017 — is set to expire at the end of September.
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Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters, D-California, said she worked closely with Rep. Patrick McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who is the committee's ranking member, to reach a bipartisan compromise.
“The ranking member and I were convinced we could do a lot better than these short-term extensions," she said. “(It) represents a turning point in the flood insurance debate."
McHenry described the proposal as a “rational reform to the program.”
“It’s not without deep compromise on the Democrat side of the aisle or without deep compromise on the Republican side of the aisle,” he said. “Short-term extensions benefit no one. Substantive reforms benefit the taxpayer over the long run and the program over the long run.”
There are no members of the Louisiana delegation on the Financial Services panel, but during opening remarks Waters praised U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, for their work toward coming up with a long-term plan for the flood insurance program that covers half a million Louisiana policyholders.
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“After 12 short-term extensions, many of which passed mere hours or days before the program would have lapsed, it is long past time for Congress to pass a long-term reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program," Scalise said after the committee vote. ""The fact that Republicans and Democrats in the House have been able to come together in a bipartisan fashion to move forward on a bill that provides long-term certainty for policyholders and make key reforms is a significant accomplishment."
If the five-year proposal fails to make it into law, the NFIP is scheduled to expire at the end of September, when the latest in a string of temporary extensions runs out. The program's last long-term extension lapsed in September 2017.
“It’s time for this legislation to pass,” said Rep. Al Lawson, D-Florida.
Louisiana's U.S. senators have questioned whether the proposal checks off all the boxes on the NFIP overhaul wish list, but other interested parties have deemed it a compromise that could finally end the cycle of stop-gap reauthorizations while bigger issues are addressed.
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“The bill in current form advances a number of the priorities that our coalition has been pushing at a fundamental level,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., which oversees the Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance. “I think this is a very encouraging development."
The proposal calls for increased funding for expanded and improved flood mapping and mitigation programs, the repeal of surcharges that have collectively cost policyholders millions, and tweaks to payment and appeals processes that have been cumbersome for some policyholders.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 forecast, all of Louisiana was projected to be in minor or moderate flood risk this year.
Catastrophic flooding in 2016 across the state left thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. This year, communities along the Mississippi River and across the Midwest have been subject to historic flooding.
“We all know that flooding is the most common, destructive and expensive natural disaster that we face,” McHenry said.
Congress has, for years, struggled with balancing the program’s efficiency with maintaining affordability to homeowners. The Government Accountability Office has included the NFIP on its high risk list because Congress hasn’t struck a sustainable balance on the program, which provides flood coverage to more than 5 million policy holders across the country.
Hecht said his group, GNO Inc., views the proposal as a good base that can be adjusted to meet the market's needs.
“We don’t think this is a set it and forget it type of reauthorization," he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has signed on as a supporter of the bill.
“The Chamber believes that this five-year reauthorization would provide that certainty, while also striking an appropriate balance of providing affordable access to this critical coverage through the NFIP and ensuring that the private flood insurance market can take shape,” the business lobby’s chief policy adviser, Neil L. Bradley, wrote in a letter to the Financial Services Committee this week.