Congress passes aviation, hurricane tax relief bill
By Joan Lowry
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress passed a bill Thursday to avoid a partial shutdown of federal aviation programs and provide tax relief for hurricane victims.
The measure now goes to President Donald Trump to sign. The bill extends the operating authority of the Federal Aviation Administration through March. If Congress had not acted, the agency would have been forced to partially shut down on Saturday, the last day of the federal budget year.
The bill also includes five tax relief provisions for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Money from 401(k) or other retirement accounts could be withdrawn without penalty for storm-related expenses, for example. Another provision would lift limits on charitable tax deductions for people making hurricane-related donations.
House Democrats said they wanted to include in the bill as many as 21 tax relief provisions that Congress had provided for victims of past hurricanes, but were forestalled by Republicans.
The House initially passed the bill in the morning by a vote of 268-155, mostly along party lines. Democrats strongly objected to GOP legislative tactics, saying normal procedures for committee consideration of the measure were circumvented.
A few hours later, the Senate passed the same bill under expedited procedures after stripping out provisions that would have expanded the private flood insurance market. The House, also using expedited procedures, then passed the revised bill.
The provisions removed from the bill would have permitted homeowners with Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages to choose private flood insurance instead of federal flood insurance if they wish. Most of the private flood insurance market today is commercial properties.
The insurance industry sought the change, saying it would give consumers another option and relieve some of the financial pressure on the federal program by reducing the number of homeowners it has to serve. The program is more than $30 billion in debt, lawmakers said.
“What the American people are craving for is competition in the products they have to protect their valuable assets,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. “Government shouldn’t be in the business of insurance.”
But Democrats and some Republicans said the change would allow private insurers to cherry-pick the least risky homeowners, further weakening the federal program by leaving it with homeowners who live in the most flood-prone areas.
Democrats also complained that Republicans refused to add extensions to the bill for a program that funds community health centers, due to expire on Saturday, and children’s health insurance, due to expire in December. Republicans said there was enough money available to keep the programs going, and they would be extended through the normal committee process.
The bill does extend programs for Native Americans at risk of diabetes, medical education, and a Medicare demonstration project.