Small Business Jobs and Tax Relief Act -- Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

By:  Mark Pryor
Date: June 27, 2012
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. PRYOR. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the National Flood Insurance Program and the status of the bill that is in the Senate today. This is a bill the Banking Committee has been working on, and we certainly appreciate the chairman and ranking member and all of the members of the Banking Committee for working on this very important piece of legislation.

I will note that when the bill came through the Banking Committee, the chairman and ranking member asked that no amendments be offered and that these be handled on the Senate floor at a later time. Here we are today, and it is time for us to handle those amendments and those changes to this very important piece of legislation. Unfortunately, we hear rumors that in the House and the various negotiations going on with the Transportation bill--as well as the student loan bill--they are trying to include the flood insurance bill with those. I think that is a tragic mistake. I think that endangers the very high chances of those two bills passing the Senate.

In fact, what endangers the passage is the national flood insurance bill needs work. We need to let the Senate work on it. We need to let the Senate be the Senate and offer amendments and debate, and we need to bring this bill to a final vote. But we also need the opportunity, as Senators, to offer amendments to this very important piece of legislation.

I just want to say the fundamental problem--and it is not only me--many of us have with this very important legislation deals with flood insurance. Insurance is a concept that should be based on risk. Flood insurance has always been based on risk. In fact, if you talk to any private insurance company, that is what they are doing. They manage risk, they assess risk, and they look at risk. They are looking at the chances of something going wrong and some damages occurring, and the third party, the insurance company, pays for those damages and makes people whole.

Well, flood insurance is no different. It has never been any different. For years and years the private sector offered flood insurance. Now I think the Federal Government is the only one offering it in the whole country. There may be a few isolated areas where they do offer it, but I think the private sector has gotten out of the flood insurance business because of the enormous costs when there is a flood. They basically priced themselves out of the market because the premiums don't cover the payouts now. Nonetheless, the risk has always been fundamental to the whole concept of insurance.

This bill changes that. This bill says if someone lives behind a levee or near a dam or some other flood-control structure, then they are going to have a requirement to purchase flood insurance regardless of the risk. If they live behind a levee, near a dam, or some other flood-control structure and they are in the 100-year floodplain, they are going to be required to purchase flood insurance. It is not based on risk. It is a per se mandatory requirement based on location. I am not sure if we can find anything in the insurance world equivalent to this.

Certainly, I think it is bad public policy. There are many reasons it is bad public policy. But the most important reason is we are going to be requiring millions and millions of Americans to purchase flood insurance in areas that will never flood. They will never need it. The reason they will never need it is because they are protected by levees and dams and other flood-control structures. Those structures work.

I will give an example in a minute of the Mississippi River and tributary system. Before I give that example, let me say those structures work. When floods happen, those areas that would otherwise flood don't flood. This bill treats those areas as if there are no levees at all or infrastructure there to protect people.

Senator Durbin has told me the story of an area on the St. Louis side of Illinois--down in the southern area of Illinois, southwest of where they have had flooding. The people locally raised their taxes so they could build levees and design those levees and maintain those levees so that flooding will never happen again. They have done this. They have taken responsibility.

Unfortunately, this bill would say they are going to have to pay twice. They are going to have to pay their taxes to build and maintain those levees, and their people are going to be required to purchase flood insurance. This is flood insurance they will never need or ever use. If they live behind a certified levee--and there are ways for levees to be decertified. If a levee is not safe or up to standards, it should be decertified. But when someone lives behind a certified levee or dam or some other flood structure that will prevent flooding, the Congress should recognize that fact and not require people to purchase flood insurance.

Let me go to this map. Some people may not realize they have levees in their State. This map shows there are levees in basically every State of the Union. For our visual purposes, we did not put Hawaii and Alaska on this map because it would take up so much space. But they have levees as well. Every dark green area shows counties where there are levees. That doesn't mean, obviously, that every single person in that county is protected by that levee, but there are levees in that county. We can see there are levees coast to coast in this country. I don't know if all 50 States have one. There may be one or two that don't, but basically they are everywhere. They are all over the country. These levees work.

Let me talk for a moment about the Corps of Engineers. Everybody here knows I have had occasions where I have criticized the Corps of Engineers when I didn't agree with what they did or when they didn't do something right or they did something I thought was dumb or whatever the case may be. But on this issue, none of us should have any criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because they know how to do a lot of things, and one of the things they know how to do is how to design, build, and maintain levees.

This map shows they have something called the Mississippi River and tributary system, and that is up and down the Mississippi with some of the tributaries going up and down the Mississippi. The Corps of Engineers, which designs and builds and maintains those MR&T levees--and this is a very important point--have never failed. They have been around since 1928 with zero failure. Not one time have they failed.

Nonetheless, this legislation that may be included in this package that is coming over from the House is going to require millions and millions of Americans who live behind

the safest levees in the world to buy flood insurance for no reason. They are never going to flood. As long as we have the MR&T and as long as the Corps of Engineers is designing and maintaining these, we are going to get a big return on our investment.

In fact, the return on our investment for the MR&T is something like $35 to $1. We get a huge return. For every dollar we put in, we save $35 based on that investment. The MR&T has prevented $478 billion--with a ``b''--worth of property damage in this country. That is $478 billion in savings, and we are going to require all those people to buy flood insurance. The Congress is going to enter into a legal fiction. They are going to pretend as if those levees are not even there. If people are in the 100-mile flood zone, they don't get any benefit from the fact that they live behind this levee system.

Let me say one more thing about the MR&T levee; that is, it not only is the safest in the world, it is the envy of the world. The Corps of Engineers travels around the world, and the world travels to the United States of America to see the levee system and the locks and dams and the other flood-control structures the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built on our rivers. They are the model that other countries are trying to follow. Why are they the model? Because they work. They design them right, build them right, and maintain them right.

Again, we get $35 to $1. For every $1 we put in, we get a $35 return on that investment. There are over 4.1 million people protected just by the MR&T. That is a small fraction of what the Corps of Engineers does. Again, there are 4.1 million people protected by the MR&T.

Over half the U.S. population lives somewhere near a levee. We don't know exactly how FEMA will administer this law because we don't know exactly what is going to come out of the House, if it does pass. But I can guarantee what is going to happen is very simple. As soon as this takes effect, we are going to have thousands and thousands of people calling us, e-mailing us, and writing us. They will be saying: Why is the Congress making my mortgage payment go up? Because that is how this is going to work. Those lenders and the Federal Government are going to require that people purchase flood insurance.

Again, we don't know the exact numbers because we don't know how this is going to be structured or how it is going to be applied just yet. Our best guesstimate is the average homeowner in this country is going to owe somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000 a year. It is not a one-time deal, but $1,000 to $2,000 a year in flood insurance that they will never need and they will never use. For some people that will be $100 or more a month. Of course, it depends on their house and on a lot of other circumstances, but that is serious money for people especially if we are requiring them to spend that for no good reason at all.

Let me just talk about the Mississippi River and tributary system again for a moment.

Everybody remembers that last year we had the potential of horrendously bad flooding in the midsection of the country. There is no doubt that our levees in Arkansas were stressed. Even the Mississippi River and tributary system levee was stressed last year; there is no question about it. There is a reason for that. In 2011, we saw the flood of record on the Mississippi River. Some people are saying it is actually the 500-year flood. These levees can be built to withstand up to 500-year floods. Some people are saying this was the 500-year flood. That hasn't been certified yet, but certainly there was a huge amount of water flowing through the Mississippi River. It was in every station on the Mississippi from Cairo, IL, to Natchez, MS. They broke the record last year--every single station. And here is the key: Not one levee broke. The biggest flood we have ever had, and not one levee broke.

The Senate bill will say that even though those levees don't break, even though they are the best in the world, even though they can withstand the 500-year flood, we are going to make those people buy flood insurance. I don't think that is right. I don't think that is fair. I think the people should be outraged if we make that requirement on them. That infrastructure last year prevented $110 billion in damages--in one flood, in one spring, $110 billion worth of damages. It protected 10 million acres of land up and down the Mississippi River. So 10 million acres and nearly 1 million structures were spared because of MR&T. We did not lose one life, no flooding where it was not supposed to flood.

My colleagues will remember last year they blew the levee at Birds Point, by design. That is part of the levee system. When the water gets so high and so enormous, we start to get these 500-year levels, they build these safety valves up and down the river. They had to use one last year. They blew the levee at Birds Point in Missouri. It worked exactly as it was supposed to work. I know the farmers up there weren't real happy, but they understood the risks of where they live and how that works. That has been the deal up there for a long time. They blew that levee. The water spilled into there. It took pressure off the river and off the levees. That is what happened, and it works.

Let me show my colleagues this chart. This is sort of an artist's rendering, if you will, of the levee. There is a lot of science and engineering that goes into these levees. The flood of 1927 is so famous because it did change everything in this country. For the first time ever, the Federal Government took responsibility for levees up and down the Mississippi River and took it in a national way and created a national system.

By the way, there is a great book by John Barry called ``Rising Tide.'' If my colleagues haven't read it, it is worth reading. It is a good book about the flooding of 1927. That is the flood everybody talks about because back then we had a very inadequate levee system. There were floods all up and down the whole Mississippi River Valley, the whole watershed. I think it started raining that year on Christmas Eve of 1926, or somewhere in there, and it basically rained every day through Easter. It rained and rained and rained and rained through that area, and we didn't have the flood control to protect it. We had some levees, but they weren't scientifically done and they weren't engineered properly. They weren't big enough or strong enough. After that flood, the U.S. Government took over. So the levee system on the MR&T goes back to 1928, the year after this 1927 flood.

Anyway, the way a levee works is they design most levees--kind of the standard design--for a 100-year flood. That means there is a 1-percent chance every year that we are going to get to a certain level. Once every 100 years, that is what it is going to do, a 1-percent chance. We can see the way the MR&T is built, that isn't the half of it, because they actually built beyond the 500-year flood. In 1937, we saw a much bigger flood than the 1927 flood, but guess what. The levee system worked. They had it built and completed and it worked. It did great.

Levees are very important. We may not think they are very exciting, we may not think they make a lot of headlines, but they work. We can see an example right here. Here is a rural area, a farmland area, protected by a levee, right there. We see a lot of water down here, but there is no water over here, and that is exactly the way they are supposed to work, and they do work.

The point is the Senate bill would say even though we have this levee, these people living over here are going to have to buy flood insurance. It is not going to flood. It is never going to flood there. We have it protected. But they are going to have to buy flood insurance. It is generally unfair and it is not right and we should not do that to our people.

Let me say a few other words here before I move on. This map right here I think says a lot. This is the one I started with. We really do have levees everywhere, all around the country. There are 881 counties that have levees. Those counties contain more than 50 percent of the population of the United States. So, again, this legislation that is now trying to be attached to whatever vehicle is coming back through is going to adversely affect about half of the U.S. population in one way or the other.

Also, if someone lives in an area that has levees, they can forget about economic development--just forget about it. Once they start doing this and saying everybody has to have flood insurance living in this flood plain--even though it is not going to flood, we are still going to require that--forget about economic development. It is going to be extremely difficult for people to stay there and to have insurance in those areas.

This bill that came out of the Banking Committee I think is a good bill. I think we need to do it. We need to pass it. I am not trying to slow it down at all. In fact, I started this week thinking that we would have a chance to vote on the bill this week, that we would have a chance to debate the bill and offer amendments to the bill. I understand now there are some nongermane, nonrelevant amendments to the legislation. I think that is unfortunate. Hopefully, we can work through that. But I have an amendment that is very germane. In fact, at one point we had to change the language because the Senator from Alabama wanted to do a substitute, so we have changed our language. We still think we have anywhere from 13 to 15 cosponsors on my amendment. Senator Hoeven and many others have joined me--again, about 13 to 15 Senators. In addition, after checking with Senate offices, we have about 50 votes that we know of. I am counting 51. We have about 20 offices that

are looking at it that may be leaning toward voting for it, but they haven't committed to saying yes.

I think it is very likely, if we allow the Senate to be the Senate, we will take care of the problem in this Banking Committee bill. I think we can do that. I think we can have that vote. I think the Pryor-Hoeven amendment carries the day. I don't know that. We don't know until we debate and get in here and have a vote and see how it goes. I think right now what we need to do is let the Senate be the Senate and let the Senate debate, let the Senate argue. We fuss with each other sometimes, I know that, but let's have a vote on this amendment. I think there are well over 50 votes in this Chamber right now to take these provisions--it is section 107--out of this legislation and leave in a couple of studies. We think it is fine to have studies. We think we should study this. That is good. Again, we are not trying to slow this down. We are not trying to bury our head in the sand saying we don't think there is any risk at all. So let's study it, let's look at it, and let's see what makes sense.

I will tell my colleagues what doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense to ignore the best levee system in the world.

Let me also say this: There are several levees around the country that are not done by the Corps of Engineers. They don't have the kind of resources and expertise the Corps brings to building levees and flood control. We need to acknowledge that. There are levees in this country that should be decertified; they don't meet the standards; they maybe weren't built correctly and/or they haven't been maintained correctly. We have to maintain these levees carefully. We have to trim the vegetation. We have to be watching for things such as sand boils and structural defects. We need to go in and make adjustments from time to time. It is the reality of operating a system of levees. Honestly, there are places around the country where that hasn't been done. Those levees should not be certified unless they are repaired and brought up to standards. And the people behind those levees don't have real flood protection, so maybe they should pay for insurance. I am not opposed to that. I think they probably should. I think that is what these studies will help us sort out: How do we draw that line? How do we make that decision? Why don't we take a little time to study this and try to make sure we get this policy right so we are not charging the people for insurance they will never need?

Let me also say we do have several others here in the Senate who are for this. They have been very supportive from the very beginning. I have several colleagues I wish to thank publicly. I think some do want to come over and talk about this development today, where we may not get a chance to vote on the amendment. Pretty much everybody, almost without exception, maybe one or two exceptions, but almost without exception, pretty much everybody who was with the original amendment is going to stick with this amendment, even though it is structured a little differently because it amends the substitute and it also leaves in these two studies, but that is fine. We have never had a problem with the two studies. Again, if we adopt the Senate bill, the Senate proposal, if it comes over from the House without us having a chance to even offer our amendment, I think we are negating a very wise investment we have made around the country in the levees that the Corps of Engineers has built for us.

It is not logical that we would not consider the actual risks involved and where people live. It is not logical that we would pretend these levees aren't even there. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense in any way, shape, or form, and that is what we are being denied today as Senators. We should have a chance to look at this legislation, open it and read it, to pick at it, to find things we don't agree with, ask questions about it. Certainly I have gone through here. My colleagues can see that I have highlighted this bill and I have written on it and made notes in the margin and have questions about it. I am trying to do what Senators should do. We should work on legislation, be very constructive, if we have problems with it, try to get it amended, try to convince our colleagues that our arguments should carry the day and that we should prevail and that we should amend legislation.

We all recognize the Banking Committee has worked very hard on this issue. We appreciate the chairman and the ranking member for their hard work and the hard work of all their staff. They have been great. But since the bill did not get amended in the committee, it ought to at least have a chance to be amended on the Senate floor, especially when there is at least one amendment where it looks as though well over 50 Senators support that amendment. It would be an injustice if this provision was not included in what is coming over from the House. As I said before, it also endangers the passage of the surface transportation bill as well as the student loan provisions that are very popular with people. I think we have plenty of votes to pass both of those, but if the cost of that means--if the tradeoff for that means we are going to be charging people for flood insurance they don't need--it is mandatory now. This is not an option. It is mandatory. They have to buy flood insurance.

I do not think that is a tradeoff we should make.

Also, I was talking to someone earlier, and they said: We need student loans. I agree with that. I am all for lowering the rate of student loans. But I can guarantee it is going to be less money out of pocket for people on the student loans than it is to be buying this flood insurance every year--no doubt about that--because this stuff is very expensive and the difference in the student loans is not going to be $1,000 or $2,000 a year. The difference in student loans is maybe going to be a few hundred dollars a year. It is significant and it helps and we want people to go to college--and I am all for that--but this is the pocketbook issue: the fact that we are going to be requiring people to purchase insurance they do not need.

So what my amendment does is remove the mandatory language in section 107. It basically says people are not going to be required to purchase flood insurance just merely because they live behind a levee or near a dam or some other flood control structure.

As I said, right now the way the banking bill is drafted, it is a per se requirement based on location, not based on risk. It is based on location.

Let me also say something about the Senator from Alabama. He reached an agreement with one of the Senators from Mississippi, and I appreciate that. That amendment does make the bill a little better--it does--because the way the bill was originally structured, it did not matter if someone lived in a 100-year floodplain or a 500-year floodplain, it did not matter; they were going to buy that insurance.

What Senator Cochran of Mississippi was able to work out was to at least restrict it to a 100-year floodplain. That is good. It is an improvement. But the fundamental principle still applies: We are requiring people to purchase insurance they are never going to need because they are protected by the levees.

With that, I know we have some other Members who want to come over and speak. I think what I will do right now is yield the floor and await my colleagues to come over.

I yield the floor.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.


Mr. PRYOR. First, let me thank my colleague and friend from Illinois for his comments and his insights. He is fighting hard for his people in Illinois. We have similar stories in our State, and my guess is that virtually every Senator who is a Member of this body has a similar story where the people in these areas with levees are taxing themselves. They are taking on the responsibility to protect their property and their communities from floods.

There is no doubt at all that these folks who live behind levees are in a better position than folks who are not behind levees, and the Flood Insurance Program should recognize that fact. In listening to Senator Durbin a few moments ago, I had a thought, and that is, if we are going to do this, if we are going to select the people in these darker areas on this map and we are going to say: Hey, just because you live in an area that has a levee, you are going to have to pay more, is not fair.

I would prefer that we just make everybody pay. Why don't we make every mortgage owner in the country pay for this? Why don't we just say: Look, if you have a mortgage, you are going to have to pay $5 a month, or whatever the number is, just to help subsidize everybody else.

That is a fairer way to do it. Why are we singling out people who live behind levees and dams and have other flood-control infrastructure there? It makes no sense. In fact, those people are more protected than other people.

I know that in the Banking Committee the Presiding Officer had an amendment he was interested in that dealt with the people who have existing mortgages. In effect, when you sign a mortgage, it is maybe a 30-year contract, 15-year contract--however long your mortgage is--and pretty much what you bargain for is what you bargain for. And it changes the equation right now if suddenly, because you live in a certain area, you are going to have to now pay an additional $100, $200 a month for flood insurance. That totally changes the equation for people. We shouldn't do that.

I know the Senator from Oregon offered or talked about an amendment in the committee to say that these new laws, these new regs should not apply to folks with existing mortgages because it is not what they bargained for. I think there is value in that. I think we ought to talk about that. But there again, if some of these folks get their way around here, we are not going to have a chance to have that discussion and offer that amendment.

But the Pryor amendment actually covers that situation the Senator from Oregon has been concerned about because what we do is we say: Do these studies. There are two studies that we include. They are also in section 107 of the bill. Do those two studies. Give this some time. And let's analyze it and look at it and figure out the best way forward. But in the meantime, we are not going to charge people with existing mortgages or people who are trying to get mortgages today--we are not going to charge them unfairly, we are not going to single them out merely because they happen to live in a place that has a levee or a dam or some other flood-control structure.

I know we have others who are coming over soon to discuss this. I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.


Mr. PRYOR. Madam President, let me thank all my colleagues who have come here today to talk about this issue. It turns out we have had two Democrats and two Republicans. We may have more on the way. I know of at least one or two others who may be on the way.

I would like to say thank you to them for their assistance here, but also, more importantly, I thank them for doing a great job representing their States well. When you look at their States and the number of levees they have in their States, the number of people who will be adversely impacted by this, this is a very significant piece of legislation. It deserves debate.

I do not like the fact that somewhere in this building, behind closed doors, people are trying to negotiate this legislation into a larger package. We should let the Senate be the Senate. We should bring the National Flood Insurance Program bill to the floor by regular order, we should debate it, we should offer amendments, and we should vote on those amendments and vote on final passage. We should not have any funny business. This is an important piece of legislation, but right now the funny business with this legislation is not the fact that there may be an extraneous amendment or two that are totally unrelated to the subject matter; the funny business right now is that they are trying to jam this down the throats of other Senators, especially when they know that there is an amendment that is relevant, that is germane, that is in order, and that amendment would probably get well over 50 votes. They are thwarting the will of the Senate if they include this in the legislation.

I implore my colleagues who are involved in this conference effort to try to bring the surface transportation bill, which I support, and try to bring the student loan bill, which I support--try to bring those bills to the floor. I implore them to not include the offending language of section 107. If they do, I want to state my intention to object to that language when it comes here to the Senate. That is not a very pleasant prospect because that means the House may have to stay longer, and the Senate may have to stay longer. This is completely avoidable.

I think if we have a mechanism in place where we can either take this legislation, the flood insurance legislation, up tomorrow and dispense with it--and pass it, I hope; amend it and pass it, I hope--and/or if we could file cloture if there are problems with extraneous amendments--we could file cloture more or less, say, tomorrow, and then after the Fourth of July recess where we will be back home in our home States, we could take it up the first day or two when we get back.

There are ways to do this. We have to remember that this legislation--excuse me--this law does not expire until the end of July. We have 2 or 3 extra weeks here. It is not going to expire this weekend. We have another month that we can do this, and sometimes things in the Congress take time, we understand that. I would rather do it sooner rather than later. I would rather get it all done tomorrow. But I do not want this included in some larger package where we do not have a chance to offer the Pryor-Hoeven amendment.

I yield the floor.