01/07/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

The Shameful Delay in Federal Aid for Sandy Relief

All over this region middle class homeowners with houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy are struggling to rebuild their property and their lives. Last week's legislation provided $9.7 billion to cover insurance claims by homeowners. While government at all levels did an impressive job in the early stages of response to the Hurricane, the federal government, especially the radical right that is trying to run the U.S. House of Representatives, decided to hold the working people of New York and New Jersey hostage to their extremist political views. Wealthy people in this region did not have to wait for insurance checks and government help to repair their homes, they just wrote checks and quickly resumed their normal lives. Sadly, people who have no cash reserves and are struggling to pay their bills and raise their kids have been hung out to dry by ideological zealots who are running amok in Washington.

According to New York Times reporter Raymond Hernandez:

The House passed the insurance measure 354 to 67; it then cleared the Senate by unanimous consent... In the House, all of the votes against the aid came from Republicans, who have objected that no cuts in other programs had been identified to pay for the measure despite the nation's long-term deficit problem. The 67 Republicans who voted against the measure included 17 freshman lawmakers, suggesting that the new class will provide support to the sizable group of anti-spending conservatives already in the House.

What's the next step for these self-righteous representatives of the people? Will they advocate only sending ambulances to sick people with a good credit rating? Do they propose we charge people for putting out house fires? Will they put taxi meters on police cars? What happened to the concept of community? What happened to the idea that we take care of our own? What happened to the United States of America? Are we going back to the famous Daily News Headline of the mid-1970's: "Ford to City: Drop Dead"? In the end, the federal government did not let New York City go bankrupt, and I believe that the federal government will deliver on its promises, but the delay is causing needless anxiety and real suffering.

Visiting Long Beach, New York this past weekend, all I heard was the sound of people working, clearing debris, rebuilding their homes and helping each other. The historic, memory-laden boardwalk may be coming down, but people are confident it will be rebuilt by summer. Everywhere you look there are signs of revival as people who work hard all week long are working evenings and weekends to rebuild their homes. But the money to replace storm damaged boilers, hot water heaters and other expensive materials had to wait until the radical right made their point that social programs should be cut before we make good on the promise of government help. Shame on them: Let it be their own communities that get devastated next so we can see how they feel when it is their neighborhood instead of mine that finds their cries for help unanswered. Congressman Peter King was right when he called it disgraceful. My Long Beach neighbors had some other choice words for these folks this weekend.

I agree that we need to figure out a way to fund and routinize storm aid. A month ago I proposed that we establish and fund a federal disaster Superfund. At that time I observed that:

A principle that must be accepted is that the national government has a major responsibility to fund communities that have been struck by disaster... We need an agreed-to program of national disaster relief. It should be funded by a trust fund that all of us contribute to as part of our tax burden... If payment is spread wide enough, all of us will benefit from the presence of insurance against the most unpredictable force we know -- the force of nature. Along with requirements for more extensive insurance coverage, our society could develop a more realistic array of rainy day funds. Access to these funds would be similar to payment of insurance claims and removed from political gamesmanship.

Our increased need for disaster relief must be seen as an additional, incremental burden on government's resources and should have no claim on existing revenues. New revenues must be generated for this vastly increased function. The combination of climate change, higher population densities and more complex and vulnerable infrastructure (power, sewage, water and transportation) requires that we develop new capacities and new resources to respond to disasters and rebuild in their wake. We have no choice but to develop this capacity. Disaster relief and reconstruction is a central element of the fundamental, irreducible responsibility of government: security. It makes little difference if your home is destroyed by a flood or an attack by an enemy. The house is just as uninhabitable. If we are to live in a civilized community, we need to figure out a way to fund, develop and maintain enhanced disaster response capacity.

The fact that we have not yet figured out how to fund and build this capacity is not the fault of the working people in New York and New Jersey. They should not be held hostage to the battle over funding for America's social safety net. There is little question that we need an honest and forthright discussion of the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But every issue from the deficit ceiling to hurricane relief funding cannot be tied to the future of entitlements. It is not fair and it only serves to polarize the discussion.

The next act in this political circus will happen in mid-January, when the rest of the Sandy aid package hits the Congressional Big Top. Most of these funds are devoted to reconstructing damaged infrastructure and making sure that what gets rebuilt is more resilient than the stuff that got destroyed. New York and New Jersey, and especially its shore communities, desperately need this aid. When Katrina hit, the states along the Gulf Coast received the funds needed to rebuild. It is true that the cost of repairing the damage in New York and New Jersey will be higher than the cost of restoring Mississippi and Louisiana. But the principle is the same and the resources must be provided.

Just when I think our federal government can't get any more ridiculous, I'm proven wrong. It is time for the same rational people who voted for the $9.7 billion package to step up and finish the job. Congress can go back to the trapeze, elephants and juggling if they have their heart set on remaining a circus. But first, help us rebuild our damaged region. Further delay only causes needless suffering and brings additional shame to our national community.