WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-controlled House on Friday passed a $20 billion-plus aid package for Puerto Rico, where a swarm of earthquakes last month set back the island territory's slow, troubled recovery from the hurricane devastation of 2017.
The legislation, approved by a mostly party-line 237-161 vote, would provide more than $5 billion in emergency appropriations, mostly for housing aid, rebuilding infrastructure, and repairing roads and bridges. It also includes $16 billion worth of tax breaks, mostly designed to extend refundable child tax credits for low-income families and to give the island's residents equal access to an earned income tax credit for low-income earners.
But the White House has promised to veto the legislation, charging the island's government of mismanagement and weak financial controls. It arrives in the Senate as a dead letter anyway. Puerto Rico's non-voting congressional delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican, urged Democrats to look for common ground in hopes of getting agreement on an aid package the White House might accept.
The Trump administration has been slow to release $44 billion in money that's already been approved for Puerto Rico, stoking the ire of Democrats, who mounted a high-profile campaign to try to force the administration to release aid more quickly. A White House veto threat took note of huge balances of unspent aid.
"Over the last three years, we have allocated more than $40 billion for Puerto Rico disasters, and less than half of that has been spent," said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “And we have all seen recent press reports about warehouses in Puerto Rico full of water, diapers and food that have not been distributed to residents in need.”
Democrats, however, see a double standard. Trump has trumpeted aid efforts to disaster-slammed states, especially in coastal southern GOP strongholds. But he has feuded with Democratic elected officials in Puerto Rico and has supported aid to the island after the urging of GOP office holders such as Florida GOP Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio,.
“Don't come here and say that ‘We have been there for Puerto Rico,'" said Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y. “This administration has done everything within their power to withhold the money flowing to Puerto Rico.”
The Puerto Rico aide issue is also infused with politics, as the population of Puerto Ricans on the mainland is growing while the island has steadily lost population during a long economic decline made worse by natural disasters. More than 200,000 residents of the U.S. commonwealth have relocated to Florida, New York and elsewhere.
Friday's debate exposed bipartisan frustration with the federal bureaucracy for disaster victims, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, over delays in aid to rebuild schools, hospitals, roads, and the island's heavily damaged electrical grid.