WASHINGTON — The Trump administration wants hard data on the cost to rebuild from recent hurricanes before making its next request for emergency aid, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Tuesday a couple of hours before $36.5 billion of disaster aid cleared Congress.
Mulvaney, speaking at the annual meeting of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association here, also reaffirmed the administration’s pledge to not use any of the aid to bail out Puerto Rico’s bondholders.
The next disaster aid request to Congress will be made “before the middle of November” and it will be “huge,” Mulvaney said, predicting “these are going to be tremendous casualty losses, much larger I think than you saw in Superstorm Sandy.”
President Trump is expected to sign the $36.5 billion in emergency disaster aid bill the Senate approved in a vote of 87-12 after he assured senators he will ask for more funding next month.
Some senators wanted to add funding while others wanted to exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act which requires cargo ships delivering goods from the U.S. mainland to the territory to be chartered in the U.S.
The package, which earlier passed the House, is the second installment approved by Congress for hurricane relief this fall and includes $576.5 million for wildfires in California and elsewhere in the West.
It also includes a $4.9 billion loan for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to keep their territorial governments operational past the end of this month.
Many rural areas of Puerto Rico remain inaccessible. Florida’s two senators on Tuesday urged the heads of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to promptly assist and identify interim solutions for Puerto Rico in repairing its damaged roads and bridges.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson wrote a letter to the two agencies asking for their interim solutions to quickly restore access to these communities and for their plans to help rebuild and repair roads and bridges on the island.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and two New York Democrat in the House have urged the president to appoint an experienced emergency “CEO of Response & Recovery” to coordinate the federal response in Puerto Rico.
Mulvaney said the Office of Management and Budget, which he heads, is seeking realistic damage estimates from independent sources such as universities before requesting funding for specific purposes such as assistance to Florida’s devastated citrus industry or rebuilding the port of Houston.
Mulvaney voted against the 2012 federal disaster aid for rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy when he was a Republican member of the House representing South Carolina.
The former congressman acknowledged that he “got a little bit of attention” for that vote, which he justified because “we literally wrote a check for $60 billion and didn’t have a single congressional hearing about that.”
“I just don’t want to make those same mistakes again,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney indicated the federal government will be focused on helping to rebuild in the U.S. Caribbean, Florida, Texas and Western states with “fiscally responsible” assistance.
“The bottom line is this,” Mulvaney said, referring to Puerto Rico. “We are going to do what we are going to do to help the island. We are not going to get involved with the current PROMESA proceedings.”
He promised the federal government is “not going to touch” the decisions made by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico to oversee the debt restructuring.
“I didn’t particularly care for PROMESA,” Mulvaney said, adding that he thought it was “a terrible thing to do” make the general obligation bonds subordinated to the pensions.
“We are not going to touch that,” he said. “We are not bailing out the bondholders. We are not going to make the bondholders any worse off. What we are focusing on is fixing the island and rebuilding the island so it can be viable again.”