Hurricane Sandy and the Least Productive Congress

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, some republicans from states affected by Hurricane Sandy grew extraordinarily angry with House Speaker John Boehner for delaying a vote on a senate-approved $60 billion disaster relief bill. Are they right to be angry? I shall endeavour to examine the situation and reach what conclusions I can.

Let’s examine what was said. First, there was Representative Peter King (R-NY):

Next, there was New Jersey’s republican governor, Chris Christie:

All of this sounds pretty abysmal, at least at first glance. Boehner’s cites general fatigue among the members of the house for his tabling of the bill, but, in response to all of this, has rescheduled the vote to clear the full $60 billion by January 15th.

I wager it’s fairly likely Boehner was going to reschedule this vote shortly anyway. Is Boehner being unfairly blamed for what amounts to a very short delay? To answer this question, we need to look at past federal responses to natural disasters. If the response was similar, King and Christie can be accused of political posturing and using the current unpopularity of congress to bolster their own public opinion. If the response was different, there may very well be a case against Boehner.

Back in October, I did some research into how aid for Hurricane Katrina was structured. In the Katrina case, congress approved $62 billion in aid, the equivalent of $73 billion adjusted for inflation. Hurricane Katrina felled the levies on August 29, 2005.  Congress approved the aid on September 8, 2005, 10 days after the levies fell.

In the Sandy case, congress is still seeking to approve $60 billion in aid, $13 billion less than was spent on Katrina when inflation is taken into account. This is acceptable, because Katrina’s caused far more extensive damage ($108 billion in damage was caused by Katrina–make it $127 billion adjusted for inflation–compared with Sandy’s estimate of around $71 billion). However, the approval time is quite different from Katrina’s. Sandy hit back on October 29, 2012, and at the time of writing it’s January 3, 2013, with no congressional aid package. That’s well over two months.

By any and all account, those of us who remember Katrina remember it as a botched relief effort. Nonetheless, the federal aid for Katrina was cleared through congress in 10 days while the aid for Sandy sits at two months and counting without action. What appeared to be a “small delay” in moving the aid vote back from the beginning of January to January 15th actually amounts to moving the vote back an additional fortnight. That delay is itself longer than the original approval time for the Katrina aid in 2005. Something has indeed been seriously botched here, and Christie and King are right to complain. But is the delay Boehner’s fault alone?

The senate passed this bill back on December 28, 2012–still nearly two months after the disaster hit. While not as tardy as the house’s planned January 15 vote by nearly three weeks, it is still quite unimpressive by Katrina standards. What we really have here is a congressional failure and, given recent history, is that really so very surprising?

The just-expired 112th congress has indeed proven to be the least productive congress in modern American history, passing a mere 211 bills:

If we were to stick a trend line in that graph, we’d see congress’ activity rising steadily from around 1855 to a peak in the early 1950’s, with a gradual decline back downward ever since. The last time congress was this slow was the 19th century, a time when passing over 200 bills in a session was a sign of efficiency rather than the reverse.

The people hated this congress in consequence, and understandably so:

But for all that, what were the people prepared to do in November of 2012, when they had the chance to change this congress?

They were prepared to reelect 90% of the members of congress who ran for reelection, for one. As for the composition of the houses of congress among the two parties? They were very nearly exactly the same.

For the senate:

Session Democrats Independents Republicans
112th Congress 51 2 46
113th Congress 53 2 45

For the house:

Session Democrats Republicans
112th Congress 191 240
113th Congress 200 233

For good measure, the people re-elected the president, too.

The house is still Boehner’s; the senate is still Reid’s; the oval office is still Obama’s. The people hate congress, but they sure love their local congressmen. So when we assign blame for the delay on passing federal aid for Hurricane Sandy, for the delay in responding to the fiscal cliff, for the feckless incompetence of this government in general, let’s stop naming this politician or that politician, and look instead at the group that refuses to learn from its errors, that can hate a congress and still reproduce it yet again–the people, the voters of the United States. They are incompetent because we, collectively, are incompetent. They reflect our errors, flaws, and vices, and we have only ourselves to blame for what they do to us.

Either the people must learn to vote better, or they must learn not to trust themselves to vote at all.