WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve bipartisan legislation that would block dramatic increases in premiums paid by some property owners covered under the federal flood insurance program.
The 306-91 vote follows a Senate vote on Jan. 30 approving similar legislation. The Senate could vote on the House version by the end of the week.
"Relief is on the way,'' Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said before the vote.
Under the House bill, called the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, premiums under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) could increase no more than 18% per property annually.
The legislation was crafted by Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York in response to premiums that in some cases had increased tenfold.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who worked on the compromise, said the House measure strikes "the right balance'' between fiscal solvency for the flood insurance program and consumer affordability.
Supporters of the measure, including Gulf Coast lawmakers, said the increases were making it impossible for many people to keep their homes or sell them.
Critics, however, say taxpayers will be left to foot the bill for the financially troubled insurance program.
The premium increases were required under a 2012 law known as Biggert-Waters that was designed to designed to make the government's flood insurance program financially solvent by bringing rates in line with true flooding risks.
Premiums under the program have been heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and the program is $24 billion in debt.
The House measure also would repeal a provision in the Biggert-Waters law that increases premiums — up to the full-risk rate over five years — when the Federal Emergency Management Agency adopts new flood maps.
Waters, a co-author of the 2012 Biggert-Waters law, worked with Republicans on the recent compromise.
Under the compromise, homes that met code when they were built would be protected from rate spikes due to new flood mapping.
Biggert-Waters imposes 25% rate hikes on some but not all properties that have received premium subsidies through the NFIP. The program, run by FEMA, has traditionally charged premiums at about 40% to 45% of their full cost, with taxpayers subsidizing the rest.
The Senate-passed bill, by Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, would delay some of the premium increases for four years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would use the time to complete a study of how to make the higher rates affordable.
"I'm encouraged by this progress and hope we can bring the bill over the finish line very, very soon," Menendez said Tuesday.
The successful effort to win passage of the bill reflected a rare moment of bipartisanship in a highly partisan Congress.
But conservative lawmakers and government watchdog groups oppose the effort to roll back the increased premiums, saying taxpayers should not have to subsidize flood insurance coverage for homeowners who build or buy in high-risk areas.
"It's not going to be very affordable for taxpayers,'' said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "This program, that's $24 billion in debt to the Treasury, is going to be saddled with these changes.''
Critics of the legislation complain it didn't go through the regular committee process.
"Everybody we talked to, virtually without fail, recognize that these delay and repeal efforts are damaging and counterproductive,'' said Andrew Moylan, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. "Rushing a vote the way that they are is an indication that in their heart of hearts, they know it's the wrong thing to do.''
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, opposed the measure, saying the federal flood insurance program is in "deep debt and it's putting taxpayers at risk for another government bailout.''
"Maintaining these subsidies hurts everyone in the long run,'' Neugebauer said.
In addition to capping annual premium increases at 18%, the House bill also would allow people buying homes covered under the federal flood insurance program to pay the subsidized premium rate at first, rather than the higher rate reflecting true flooding risk.
The House bill would be financed through small assessments on all NFIP policyholders that would go into a reserve fund for FEMA to pay future claims.