U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (right) surveys damage from Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (right) surveys damage from Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
Jeb Hensarling Flickr

Hensarling Voted Against Harvey Aid, but Maybe He's Not the Real Bad Guy

Under normal circumstances when a Republican member of the Congress from Texas calls you “unconscionable,” you probably should just report to the nearest convent and ask them to lock you up in the laundry for the rest of your life. Your moral struggles have come to an end.

U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Dallas Republican, was called unconscionable a week ago by a Texas Republican colleague. Hensarling had joined three other Texas Republicans in voting against the $15 billion Harvey aid bill in the House. And at least at first blush, that did sound low on the conscionable scale.

But before Hensarling reports for laundry duty, he should be allowed to ask his accuser one last question: What’s the accuser’s bright idea?

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, whose district is southeast of Austin, actually said what his idea was when he leveled the charge of lack of conscience against Hensarling, along with targets Joe Barton of Arlington, Sam Johnson of Plano and Mac Thornberry of Clarendon in West Texas:

“When I had people dying and hurting in my home state,” McCaul said, “it was my duty and moral obligation to help them.”

And that’s clear enough. McCaul’s intent was to help people who were hurting and dying in his home state. But there’s an obvious curve ball in there. What McCaul suggests with his assertion of his personal virtue is that Hensarling and the others are not virtuous. They do not feel it is their moral obligation to help people who are dying and hurting in their state.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip over the other three accused Texas Republican congressmen for now. I don’t know much about them. And I’m such a lifelong, pinko, hippie-liberal Dem that if I tried to defend four Texas Republicans all at once, I’d probably get an aneurysm.

But this is what I know about Hensarling: More than just about anybody else in Washington right now, he seems to be the one guy trying to get the Congress to stop putting babies and grandmothers in the paths of every future horrible flood to come.

Sure, right after a Harvey or an Irma, most main-chance members of Congress are slugging their ways into the paths of the TV cameras to make sure the voters back home see them with their big Santa bags of relief money. I’m not saying that’s not virtuous, but I am saying it’s also about getting re-elected.

A little over a week ago, when the same members of Congress voted for the Harvey relief bill, they also voted not to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, a cruelly dysfunctional federal program that helps set up these tragedies to happen again in the next horrible cycle.

OK, for now, let’s agree to put climate change off the conversational table because we can’t talk about it without some people mentally misbehaving. We can still agree that the National Flood Insurance Program created by Congress in 1968 has been an unconscionable agent of mayhem, climate change or not.

It’s $24 billion in debt and continues to lose $1.4 billion a year, and that’s not even its worst problem. The reason it’s such a disastrous money burner — the real problem with it — is that it pays people to build houses and other structures in the paths of future floods. That’s like paying people to push all their stuff off a cliff. It’s such a bad business idea, it’s probably worth a diagnosis.

By paying people to build in the paths of floods, I mean that the NFIP provides people with insurance for flood-prone properties at rates so low that no private insurance company could or would touch them. The NFIP is $25 billion in the hole because it’s set up to burn money.

But worse than that, it’s set up to create a false sense of security about building in flood zones. Most of the people in the areas flooded in the recent mega-storms do not have NFIP insurance. But the existence of the NFIP and its bogus rate structure lend momentum and legitimacy to dangerous development — hardly the role our conscionable, caring government ought to be taking.

Plus, the NFIP’s low rates price out any real insurance. And real insurance, based on actuarial rates that reflect real flood risk, is our one great hope.

I have written a lot about the Dutch and their national philosophy of compulsory flood control, called Living with Water, which I like because I’m your basic commie hippie pinko son of a bitch, so I like the compulsory element. The Dutch are able to achieve flood safety by imposing upon themselves an element of tough land-use control. I’m just crazy about compulsion. No idea why. Nothing to do with leather, promise.

But what are the chances the United States is ever going to do that? Isn’t it much more likely we will take a more market-driven approach? And should insurance not be at the center of that?

If we didn’t have the NFIP charging faked-up low rates for flood insurance, then private insurers could enter the market. If people got a look at the real market-rate cost of insuring beach-front housing or any structure not safe from runoff and flash flooding, then you can be sure our development patterns would start to change big-time.

Reform of the National Flood Insurance Program could significantly reduce loss of life and property in future events like Harvey in Houston.
Reform of the National Flood Insurance Program could significantly reduce loss of life and property in future events like Harvey in Houston.
courtesy skeez181

This is another instance of the environment melding with the market. If we begin to price things according to their real costs — recovery cost, mitigation cost, environmental cost — then those prices will begin to nudge us toward more sensible and responsible ways of living. But just handing everybody bailout money has the opposite effect.

The congressional history on the National Flood Insurance Program is big-time unconscionable. First of all, Congress has known for years that the program is a financial wreck with destructive social and economic effects, mainly because of the unrealistically low rates it charges.

In 2012, Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, and Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican from Illinois, introduced what became the Biggert-Waters Act to reform the National Flood Insurance Program. One of the act’s principal aims was to get the rates back up somewhere near the realm of actuarial real life.

Ah, but guess what. When that happened, when the rates began to climb, the whole venture banged its head into this scary limit that seems sometimes to impose itself on democracy — a very low social threshold for immediate pain of any kind.

The new prices hurt. They pinched. People didn’t like them. Some people, anyway. Some people used to be able to get their flood insurance much more cheaply. With cheap insurance in hand, they were able to get new mortgages for their beach houses that had already floated off their foundations four and five times in the past. But when the new, sometimes unaffordable insurance rates took hold for locations already proven by history to be flood prone, people could not afford to rebuild there. That hurt them, of course. And it made banks, builders and developers unhappy.

As soon as the outcry over the new rates began, Waters executed what still ranks as one of the more unconscionable, all-elbows hypocritical marches to the TV cameras in congressional history. When the lights came up, Waters said she was “outraged by the increased costs of flood insurance premiums that have resulted from the Biggert-Waters Act.”

That’s a real quote. So what do you think? Did she ever notice the second half of the name of the act? Her own name? Her act? Apparently not.

She said, “I certainly did not intend for these types of outrageous premiums to occur for any homeowner.” Then Waters helped lead an effort to pass a new law forbidding the NFIP from raising its rates. The law passed.

Since then, the NFIP has continued charging artificially low rates that encourage flood-prone development, and it has continued to hemorrhage billions of tax dollars in doing so. That’s what Hensarling has been fighting to get fixed.

The NFIP was set to expire and go out of business Sept. 30. Hensarling was hoping to use that deadline to pressure the House toward a package of NFIP reforms. Instead, the House used the Harvey aid bill as political cover to extend the NFIP until December, rejecting this rare opportunity to reform the NFIP, all the while announcing far and wide its mercy, virtue and generosity.

Why would representatives do that? That’s easy. They did it because they knew from experience that reform would hurt. It would pinch people. Some people, not all, would scream bloody murder when they realized they could no longer rebuild crazily flood-prone private property at taxpayer expense. Powerful interests would rumble when the private insurance companies started pushing developers in new directions. Nobody likes new at first because old always seems easier.

But imagine this. What about the next time? What if the new storms begin coming at us again, but fewer human beings are in harm’s way because of the Hensarling reforms? What if we no longer have to pour a big slice of the national economy into disaster relief and can spend it on something more hopeful instead?

And here’s the real question. Who’s the unconscionable one here? Is it the camera hog with the big Santa bag of relief money who never risks taking even a political scratch for fixing things? Or is it the guy who actually has a real-life program for taking human beings out of harm’s way and, by the way, serving the environment?

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