By Richard Gaines
---- — Republican Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn have signaled an effort to strip from a $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill today the $150 million targeted for fisheries disaster funding — the bulk of which would go to the five coastal New England states and New York whose fishermen work the Atlantic for groundfish.
The Northeast fishing industry, including groundfishermen working out of Gloucester, was recognized as an economic “disaster” in September by the acting secretary of Commerce, based on stock and economic assessments and projected draconian catch limits for 2013. But the Commerce disaster declaration did not come backed by any emergency funding, so federal lawmakers worked to add fisheries disaster money onto the Sandy emergency aid bill.
The Sandy relief bill and its amendments — including coverage for fisheries disasters — draws toward the nation’s center stage a struggle for survival by the groundfishermen of the Northeast, centered around Gloucester and New Bedford.
The Sandy debate today is destined to unfold inside the overarching drama of moment — the Obama administration’s transition into a second term and the lame duck session of the 112th Congress, still all negotiating a means of cutting spending and raising revenues before Jan. 3 to avert the figurative free fall off the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
Nominated last week by President Obama to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry is leading the effort to shepherd the Sandy bill through the Senate with the fisheries relief intact, and in time for House passage, which is far from assured.
As McCain and Coburn size things up, the debate over Sandy relief spending and a variety of other measures added to the supplemental spending bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee include some that don’t carry the urgency of the Sandy relief. One element of the bill is $336 million for AMTRAK, the senators noted, calculating that nearly two thirds of the monies in the supplemental appropriation bill “will not be spent for nearly two years.”
McCain, of Arizona, and Coburn, of Oklahoma, dismiss the fisheries relief as among the add-ons to the Sandy bill they consider “wasteful.”
Explicitly written to “ensure funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy is not spent on deceased individuals, tax cheats, or fisheries located more than 50 miles outside the disaster area,” Coburn seems to conflate the Chinnock salmon disaster with the Northeast groundfishery disaster.
”It is inappropriate to provide funding for target local projects such as salmon in Alaska through an emergency bill,” Coburn said in the amendment announcement.
Kerry and the senators from the five coastal New England states, Alaska and Mississippi — whose oyster fishery has also been declared a disaster —and the senators from New York and New Jersey, form a bipartisan team, but Coburn and McCain can be expected to attract some skeptical Democrats to their side.
“Sen. Kerry successfully fought to get a disaster declaration into this emergency disaster assistance package because Massachusetts fishing communities are suffering from the one-two punch of disastrously low catch levels and an economic crisis,” said Kerry spokesman Alec Gerlach. “But our fishermen didn’t cause these crises, and they didn’t cause the fiscal mess that put Washington on the precipice of the fiscal cliff. Holding this aid and our fishermen hostage is a misguided attack on a straw man.”
Time is of the essence with the 112th Congress; it goes out of business on Jan. 3. The 113th Congress, which is to be sworn in to accept legislative responsibilities for the nation on Jan. 3, is not encumbered by action of its predecessor.
Coburn and McCain issued a statement Dec. 17 listing the fisheries disaster relief appropriation among a list of elements of the supplemental spending package they oppose.
“It is critical that we ensure taxpayer dollars go to help those impacted by this devastating storm and not to wasteful spending projects,” they said. “We have already identified many issues that need to be addressed in this legislation.”
The floor debate on the $100 million groundfishery disaster appropriation began on Dec. 19.
“We have been hit in the last year by record levels of reductions in our fish stocks,” Kerry said, “and we have been hit by federal regulations that are trying desperately to hold onto those fish stocks for the long term and the future which have regrettably reduced our fishing effort by ... in certain fisheries 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent.
“We have fishermen who have their boats, just like a home mortgage, their homes, their families entirely depend on their ability to bring in revenue, but because of regulations, they’re prevented from going out and doing that because in the stock which is a God-given effect of nature, just like a drought ... just like a flood ... which we respond to just like a fire, just like a storm,” Kerry said.
Kerry countered Coburn’s indictment of the fisheries disaster as wasteful, noting that his Oklahoma, along with four nearby states, had been granted $40 billion in disaster relief via the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2004 to 2011.
Joining Kerry in urging the Senate to reject the Coburn-McCain amendment were Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Begich of Alaska, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee that added the fisheries relief to the Sandy Bill.
Mikulski defended the fisheries money from Coburn’s insinuation that it was akin to an earmark, explaining the funding was authorized and badly needed.
“They meet the criteria for compelling economic and human need as required by law,” Mikulski said on the floor. “This is not an earmark, it is a certified disaster assistance.”
Kerry and the Democratic advocates of the fisheries amendment should be able to count on a number of Republicans to join their side, led by Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee who submitted the amendment which includes his state’s oyster fishery, Susan Collins and Olimpia Snowe of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.