It's been nearly impossible for Congress to rehabilitate the nation's debt-ravaged flood insurance program, and this year won't be any different in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
The National Flood Insurance Program expires on Sept. 30, leaving House and Senate lawmakers little time for reform as they face the pressure of thousands of claims filed from the flood-damaged Houston area.
The House was expected in the coming weeks to take up a set of of reform-focused House measures that would reform and extend the NFIP, but GOP leaders have not yet scheduled the legislation for floor consideration.
Now, in the wake of flooding in Houston that's displaced thousands of people, it's becoming more likely lawmakers will quickly pass a short-term NFIP extension that makes few radical changes to the insolvent program that is more than $23 billion in debt.
"Details are still being worked through, but the flood insurance program will be reauthorized," said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
This summer, the House Financial Services Committee approved a series of measures specifically aimed at reducing NFIP costs and taxpayer liability. The provisions include language that would authorize the privatization of flood insurance, which could eventually get the federal government out of the business entirely, and might even reduce costs if lawmakers can successfully harness the power of private competition.
Another proposal, authored by a Republican and a Democrat on the panel, would eventually end federal flood insurance benefits for the nations's 150,000 repeatedly flooded properties, which have cost the government billions of dollars and make up much of NFIP's current debt.
But even prior to Harvey's impact, the House reform proposals faced strong headwinds in the GOP-led Senate, where lawmakers had produced a much different bipartisan extension of the flood insurance program.
The Senate bill, authored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, exclude the most significant House reforms that were aimed at reducing costs and taxpayer liability. It specifically excludes privatization of flood insurance and makes no effort to limit federal coverage of properties that continually flood.
The flood insurance program, which operates under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was $23 billion in debt as of March 2016, according to the Government Accountability Office. And that number is likely to climb.
Thanks to massive flooding caused by Harvey, the program could soon be approach its borrowing limit of $30.4 billion, Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told the Washington Examiner. Interest on the debt costs $400 million annually, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Ellis is hoping the catastrophe in Houston will motivate lawmakers to reform the NFIP.
"I don't see how they could defend the program and argue that it should not be reformed," Ellis said.
But one hurdle to reform has been lawmakers who represent flood-prone areas that depend on federal subsidies provided by the program.
In 2014, lawmakers representing frequently flooded areas worked to reverse reforms passed into law when the NFIP was reauthorized in 2012. Those reforms would have reduced government subsidies and increased premiums for repeatedly flooded properties.
Crapo pointed out that the new Senate bill is a consensus measure agreed upon with all the members of the panel. The committee comprises senators who represent frequently flooded coastal states such as Louisiana, Hawaii, New Jersey and South Carolina.
Crapo has argued that the Senate measure does indeed include reforms, "including in the areas of risk mitigation, mapping and program improvements," that will help the government better determine flood-prone areas.
But those reforms won't put a dent in the NFIP's massive debt and rising taxpayer burden, and critics note that coastal lawmakers even now are trying to influence the less reform-minded Senate bill.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are willing to support tougher reforms, even though it's not clear they can get anywhere this year. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said changes will need to come soon given the ever-growing debt the program has created.
"We cannot continue to call on the American taxpayer to bailout a program that is currently drowning in $25 billion of red ink and suffers a $1.4 billion annual actuarial deficit," Hensarling said. "These bills put the National Flood Insurance Program on a path toward actuarial soundness where all will be protected, no one will be denied a policy, all will benefit from competition, the NFIP will be sustainable, and the national debt clock will spin a little less rapidly."