3 Ways the Fight Over Hurricane Harvey Aid Could Get Ugly

In recent years, emergency aid packages have tended to become politicized events

Hurricane Harvey is estimated to be the costliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. Credit: Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The floodwaters hadn't even crested in Houston when experts started calling Hurricane Harvey the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. One estimate put the damage at $190 billion, or more than the costs of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, combined.

That money will have to come from somewhere, which means Congress will need to approve it when it reconvenes next week. In recent years, emergency aid packages have tended to become politicized events. Here's what's expected this time around.

A Fight Over the Border Wall
When Congress returns from its August recess, one of the first things on the agenda will be to pass a stopgap measure funding the government. First it will have to pass it, then it will need President Trump's signature. Trump has threatened, à la Ted Cruz in 2013, to shut down the government unless the funding bill contains a specific provision: He wants a funds to build the border wall included in the stopgap spending bill.

"Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall," Trump told the crowd at a rally in Phoenix last week.

If the government shuts down, that means federal payments through programs like Social Security and Medicare are suspended, government employees are not paid and federal money that would be disbursed for, say, disaster recovery and other operations would be frozen.

It's likely that the first batch of Harvey aid will be part of that funding bill, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Asked on Monday if he was still considering vetoing the bill, Trump seemed confused, telling a reporter, "I think it has nothing to do with it really. I think this is separate."

A Fight Over the Debt Ceiling
The federal government was already anticipating it would need to raise the debt ceiling next month, as the federal government is expected to reach its spending limit on September 29th. A political fight over the debt ceiling is particularly precarious because if it isn't raised, the United State would go into default, triggering a cratering of financial markets both here and around the world.

That's not good for anyone, but that doesn't mean politicians haven't tried to use it to their political advantage in the past. Ted Cruz, in fact, tried to block the raising of the debt ceiling back in 2014. Now, with federal money already being spent on recovery after Harvey, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says the U.S. government could exhaust its line of credit even sooner. He wants to see Congress raise the limit by September 15th.

A Fight That Could Be Payback for Sandy
When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, the Republican congressional delegation from Texas voted almost unanimously against a $50.7 billion emergency aid package. A number of Congress members from New Jersey and New York have noted the irony that the same Republicans who refused to help five years ago are asking for such funding now that their state is the one in need. Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn, and their colleagues in the House who also voted against Sandy aid have tried to defend their past votes this week by saying that there was too much spending for unrelated projects tacked onto the Sandy bill.

Chris Christie called Cruz's explanation "crap," and multiple news organizations have indeed debunked those claims. While politicians from the Northeast have been quick to point out the hypocrisy, they've also indicated that they're not willing to grandstand over the emergency aid the way their Texan colleagues did in 2012. "Ted Cruz & Texas cohorts voted vs NY/NJ aid after Sandy but I'll vote 4 Harvey aid. NY wont abandon Texas. 1 bad turn doesnt deserve another," Rep. Pete King tweeted.

Rep/.Bill Pascrell Jr. added on Twitter, "Some #TX members tried to deny #NJ aid after Sandy, but federal gov't must support fellow Americans in time of need. You have mine. #Harvey."