U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3) has authored his first piece of legislation in Washington, aiming to bring some federal protection to relief-seeking victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
MacArthur introduced a bill today called the Disaster Assistance Fairness and Accountability Act of 2015, meant to prohibit the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from recouping funds — awarding relief money to victims of natural disasters only to later change their determination — except under certain circumstances.
It’s the first piece of legislation the freshman congressman has authored himself since taking office late last year, after winning a November general election against Democrat Aimee Belgard in South Jersey’s third congressional district.
“There’s a couple of things that bothered, even before I took office when I was interacting with Sandy victims, and that was FEMA is exercising a power that you just don’t see in the private sector,” MacArthur told PolitickerNJ via phone today.
A former insurance executive, MacArthur said he decided to address the recoupment issue after seeing FEMA walk back aid grants originally approved for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which tore through the state in late 2013. Thousands of residents continue to struggle with recovery in the aftermath in that storm, while the state’s response, led by Gov. Chris Christie, has been criticized on multiple levels — from a lack of transparency to sluggish aid distribution.
Christie most recently took flak on the issue earlier this year, when he neglected to address the state’s ongoing recovery process in the storm’s wake during his latest State of the State speech.
While only a small part of the solution, MacArthur said his bill protects victims of disaster in three ways: first by preventing FEMA from recouping on a victim’s aid if they filled out accurate applications and were awarded funds based on those applications, even if FEMA later questions the basis of the grant; second by shifting the burden of proof in a recoupment situation from the victim to FEMA, so that FEMA itself must show that an applicant who submitted inaccurate or falsified applications for aid is guilty; and third, it applies a three year statute of limitations on recoupment actions, as there is currently no limit.
“In private industry that becomes a learning moment for the examiner,” he said. “It certainly does not become a moment to go back to the claimant and say give us the money back. But FEMA has that power and is exercising it, and I found that very, very troubling.”
With respect to support for the legislation, MacArthur said he is “hopeful and optimistic” he’ll be able to get fellow lawmakers to sign on, including members of New Jersey’s own delegation, such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) or U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6). Pallone and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) have already sponsored legislation to protect innocent Sandy victims from FEMA recoupments, and sent a letter more recently to Christie asking him to address ongoing recovery problems still facing residents in the state.
“We all have the same interests down here. We just want our people to be made whole and treated fairly,” MacArthur said.
It’s the first bill on which MacArthur will be listed as the primary sponsor, though he has co-sponsored other legislation since taking office, including the House’s recent-passed Hire More Heroes Act, as well as a bill to repeal the federal medical device tax.
On Monday, MacArthur addressed a statewide gathering of Republican lawmakers via video call at Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick’s (R-21) GOP conference in Atlantic City. The crux of his message: “Now is the time to governor, not to gloat.”