The good news: There is now bipartisan, majority support in the U.S. House for a flood insurance fix the Senate already has approved, and House leaders said late Wednesday they plan to take the issue up for a vote. The bad news: Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the House will make some unspecified changes. The quicker path to providing relief to thousands of homeowners in Florida and around the country would be to pass the Senate bill and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. Longer-term reforms could then be considered.
Cantor credited five Florida Republicans in the House, including three from Tampa Bay, for finally persuading leadership to bring up flood insurance for action during the week of Feb. 24. In the nearly two weeks since the Senate passed a partial fix to the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act with bipartisan support, House Republicans blocked Democrats' efforts three times to bring the Senate bill up for a vote. In the third vote on Tuesday, Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor became only the fourth Republican and the first from Florida to break from leadership and join the Democratic caucus in trying to take up the bill.
Just hours before Cantor's announcement, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, the bill's House sponsor, announced 234 co-sponsors have signed the House legislation. That's 16 more votes than needed to pass a bill in the 435-member House. The co-sponsors include all 10 of Florida's Democrats, Bilirakis and seven more Republicans.
The Senate fix would delay for up to four years for homeowners — but not commercial or second-home properties — skyrocketing flood insurance rate increases that went into effect Oct. 1 under the Biggert-Waters Act or are expected later this year. The delay is designed to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to revisit how it determined the so-called actuarially sound rates and to fine-tune its mapping. Without a delay, the law will continue to immediately eliminate subsidies for new owners of homes built before federal flood maps were drawn, a situation that has brought real estate sales to a halt in some Tampa Bay neighborhoods. All other homeowners of those homes would see the subsidies eliminated over the next five years. The same kind of change is scheduled for later this year for so-called grandfathered policyholders, who have had their rates subsidized, when their properties are drawn into higher-risk flood zones.
Cantor, in promising action in two weeks, credited Bilirakis, Rep. Richard Nugent of Spring Hill and Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland as key in helping leadership realize the issue's importance. But Ross has been among the critics of the Senate plan, saying any changes to the 2012 law should include a long-term fix for the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $24 billion in debt in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. That stubborn position among conservative Republicans is akin to a doctor who refuses to perform triage on a patient unless he can find an operating room. First, Congress should ease the financial strain it has placed on policyholders who are at risk of losing their homes or being unable to sell. Then it should work toward a more palatable and affordable plan to shore up the flood insurance program.