How critical flood insurance legislation passed the House and Senate

As constituents started bombarding their members of Congress about sharply higher flood insurance premiums, Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., asked the federal official in charge of the program if he could do anything to provide relief.

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responded his hands were tied by the Biggert-Waters law Congress adopted in 2012 with hardly any opposition.

“I need help. I have not found a way to delay… There is no provision for affordability in this law,” Fugate said at a Senate hearing in September  2013.

Since then, there’s been a frantic legislative effort, culminating Thursday when the Senate voted 72-22 for legislation that will avert many of the large increases some said threatened to make the program unaffordable for middle-class homeowners. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, already passed by the House and representing a rare bipartisan consensus, into law.

The process leading up to the bill’s adoption was often chaotic, sometimes highly partisan. At times, defeat seemed inevitable in a gridlocked Congress that has a hard time passing even routine legislation.

Less than two hours before the Senate vote, the bill seemed in trouble – with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, maintaining his hold that would have blocked a vote and three Democratic senators insisting on votes on their legislation.

“I’ve been in sales all my life, but at 3:05 p.m. (Thursday)  I was ready to throw up my hands,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga, a former realtor and lead GOP sponsor of the flood control legislation. “But then we struck a deal and got Mike Lee to drop his hold.”

So, how did a compromise bill, with strong opposition from influential conservative groups like Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, not only pass, but win by large margins, with support from leading fiscal hawks Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

In short, a combination of factors was at play:

  • A low-budget, but highly effective grassroots campaign that could teach the professional PR firms a trick or two.
  • The good timing of an election year with incumbents not wanting to face hundreds of thousands of angry flood insurance policyholders. It helped that Senate Democrats wanted to help Landrieu, facing a tough re-election battle this fall; and House Republicans wanted to boost the chances of her leading challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, as well as a vulnerable House incumbent, Rep. Mike Grimm, R-N.Y.
  • House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s decision to take away control of the legislation from a Republican committee chairman reluctant to make changes in Biggert-Waters so soon after its enactment.

Some lawmakers rose to the occasion: Landrieu, D-La., the first lawmaker to warn that Biggert-Waters would need to be fixed, won support from the Senate’s Democratic majority; and Vitter and Isakson helped convince Sen. Lee not to block Thursday’s vote and built GOP support.

In the House, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who co-wrote Biggert-Waters, brought credibility to the battle by arguing that she never intended the “unconscionable rate increases” resulting from the law. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, once criticized by Landrieu for not using his chair of the influential House conservative caucus to deliver a flood insurance relief bill, ultimately persuaded half that conservative group to vote for the bill – no easy task. It won him praise from Landrieu.

Cassidy started a home protection caucus to push for changes in Biggert-Waters and helped write major components of the bill along with Grimm; and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, worked with Waters and Landrieu to add affordability provisions.

Still, there were lots of obstacles along the way. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, famously declared he would not bring up to the Senate-passed bill. The White House also raised objections. But after Landrieu complained, a White House official announced  the president would sign the bill. And when Landrieu asked the president about it directly, Obama confirmed he would sign the bill.

Then, there was a proposal by Cassidy, put on the House suspension calendar just before Christmas. It would have delayed some increase under Biggert-Waters until 2015. Cassidy said it contained some additional protections, beyond a measure he helped add to an earlier spending bill adopted by both the House and Senate.

But Democrats argued it would send a message  the flood insurance problems had been fixed, and make it harder to pass a comprehensive bill later.

Without Democratic votes, the Cassidy proposal couldn’t pass, and it was removed from the House calendar.

Some Republicans accused Democrats of not wanting Cassidy to get credit for passing a bill — certainly not the only time over the long process that the GOP and Democrats alleged partisan efforts to tilt credit or blame between Cassidy and Landrieu.

But in the end, newly elected Rep. Vance McAllister, R-Swartz, said the competition between Landrieu and Cassidy might have helped gain passage of the compromise bill.

Both Democrats and Republicans worked hard to engage their legislative leaders on the issue. Scalise said he mentioned the flood insurance problems facing homeowners in  Louisiana and around the nation to Cantor during their weekly meetings. Landrieu pushed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make the issue a priority. Reid called her persistent.

On Feb. 4, Richmond and Waters met with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to tell her fixing Biggert-Waters was vitally important to their constituents. Pelosi and the Democratic caucus decided to press the issue aggressively.

That same day Democrats offered a motion “to defeat the previous question,” a procedural effort to force a bill to be pulled back so it could be amended to include the Senate-passed bill delaying most premium increase for four years. They tried it three times, forcing Republicans to cast votes that Democrats could portray as opposing flood insurance relief.

After that battle, House GOP leaders decided to develop an alternative to the Senate-passed bill. Democrats said it was because of the Democratic tactics, Republicans argued it was “despite the political stunts.”

Cantor, working with Grimm, Cassidy and Scalise, helped develop a new flood insurance bill that, among other things, reinstated grandfathering – a provision of the flood insurance program eliminated under Biggert-Waters that allowed people whose elevation levels complied with past FEMA flood maps to avoid sharply higher premiums when new maps showed greater risk.

When Democrats said the Republican bill didn’t go far enough, Cantor  negotiated changes with Richmond and Waters, resulting in additional affordability provisions – an 18 percent cap on yearly rate increases and language asking FEMA to strive to keep premiums at no more than one percent of the coverage – or $2,000 on a $200,000 policy.

Perhaps based on lessons learned when Biggert-Waters raised rates more than they expected, lawmakers checked regularly with FEMA to make sure that FEMA would interpret the legislative language the way they intended.

Even after a bipartisan agreement on the House bill, there were problems. Just before the vote on the legislation, someone noticed language that seemed to put off the bill’s modifications of Biggert-Waters until FEMA could promulgate new rules. “That would have taken three years,” Richmond said. “It had to be fixed.”

The national campaign to block large flood insurance increases was led by Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc., and George Kasimos, founder of Stop FEMA Now. They were a good combination — Hecht with the good manners and nuanced political skills to insure all members working on the problem got credit, and Kasimos, more the agitator, quick to call out any congressional member who wasn’t fully committed to protecting homeowners.

Typically, a campaign to influence Congress is organized by high-paid consultants who run ads urging callers to talk to their members of Congress about their support or opposition to a particular bill.

The problem is, according to congressional staffers,  many times callers aren’t quite sure what to say.

When Hecht and Kasimos needed to persuade members, they found homeowners who could tell the congressional staffer, almost to the penny, how much premiums were rising, or a real estate agent, to explain homes values are way down because, under Biggert-Waters, there’s an immediate increase to actuarial levels once a home changes owners.

Dan Holler of Heritage Action, which opposes the proposed legislative fixes to Biggert-Waters, said what he called the hyperbole from groups agitating for congressional relief made it seem all 5.5-million flood insurance policyholders faced premium increases, not just the 20 percent estimated by FEMA. Still, he acknowledges, “everyone uses hyperbole” to win support for their legislative priorities, and that the advocacy groups working to change Biggert-Waters were effective.

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