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5 Lessons for D.C. on Sandy’s First Anniversary

On the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, the communities along the Jersey Shore and surrounding New York Harbor are living with a profoundly complex mixture of emotions: stubborn triumph at the resilience of their recovery efforts and deep frustration at how much work remains.

The political class in the nation’s capital, meanwhile, has spent the past year confronting an array of political and policy lessons from one the most catastrophic natural disasters in modern American history — and certainly the most politically consequential since Hurricane Katrina.

For the political class, the biggest takeaway from Katrina was how not to behave. One of the iconic photographs of George W. Bush’s presidency is of him peering out the thick windows of Air Force One as it flew high above a submerged New Orleans, two days after that storm made landfall. The image captured the sense that Bush was isolated or indifferent to the magnitude of the problem, leading to the slow and inefficient federal response that ranks as a domestic low point for his administration.

A president who had recently won re-election as a decisive leader, effective manager and still-compassionate conservative was made to look as though all those attributes had disappeared — a collective public assessment from which he never recovered.

But Bush’s shortcomings also provided some remedial instruction to presidential aspirants and congressional candidates of both parties about the need to project both empathy and competence with speed, sincerity and simplicity when national disasters strike. By the time Sandy struck, every politician with anything at stake knew that a top-notch performance was essential. But what of the lessons learned subsequently?

Here are five of the most important to remember at the Capitol:

Incumbents gain from disaster. Twelve hours before the storm started living up to the grim expectations, President Barack Obama canceled three of the final eight days of his campaign — essentially staking his re-election on his performance as first responder in chief. He was confident he could apply the do-what-Bush-didn’t lesson both before and after the storm with a series of meetings with his disaster response Cabinet, televised warnings, tours of the devastation and promises of help. He seized the spotlight as only a sitting president can in a national crisis. He understood the best way to diminish his prospects for re-election was to act overtly political instead of entirely presidential.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey leveraged the powers of his office in similar fashion — no more so than when he made his legendary, totally-political-by-not-appearing-political move of touring the damage with Obama and lavishing praise on him. More because of Sandy than anything else, what were solid poll numbers for the governor a year ago now look strong enough to propel him toward a record re-election margin a week from now — and after that toward the top tier of 2016 Republican presidential prospects.

At the congressional level, all three House races that were decided by storm-swept voters were won by the incumbents: Republican Jon Runyan in central New Jersey, Republican Michael G. Grimm on Staten Island and Democrat Timothy H. Bishop on Long Island.

Washington still closes down too easily. Eleven months before political gridlock forced a partial shutdown lasting 16 days, the federal government shuttered all of its operations in the capital region on the two days bracketing Sandy’s surging landfall — a storm intensified by a merging nor’easter, a full moon and high tide. The Supreme Court delayed a day’s worth of oral arguments and the Capitol (empty of lawmakers so close to the election) was closed to tourists.

In hindsight, the abundance of caution appeared a bit self-aggrandizing and a bit goofy, because the cone of destruction didn’t come close to the seat of government. The rains were drenching, the winds were stiff, trees fell, and some power lines came down. But nobody died, and Metro wasn’t hobbled. The impression was that the city had lived up to its reputation as a weather hypochondriac — preparing for a snowpocalyspe every time something that’s closer to a dusting is reliably forecast.

FEMA has more work to do. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which got universally failing marks after Katrina, looked for a time to be getting widespread honor-roll scores after Sandy. Now, the consensus view is that a grade of incomplete is the most appropriate.

The administration reported Monday that it had as provided direct Sandy aide to more than 230,000 people and small businesses through FEMA, the Small Business Administration and the Labor Department. But it also conceded that only $13.5 billion in checks have been written, barely one-third of the spending promised. The frustration at the delays are building, no more so than in New York, where FEMA acknowledged last week that only 57 percent of the 155,000 homeowners and renters who applied for aid from the agency have had their applications processed.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is marking up a bill Tuesday reauthorizing FEMA and refining procedures to speed and streamline disaster recovery efforts and reduce bureaucratic overhead.

The “Hastert rule” is more like a goal. If the country thought it learned one bit of insider insight during the most recent budget impasse, it’s that Speaker John A. Boehner didn’t want to pass a bill reopening the government with mostly Democratic votes.  That’s because of the Ohio Republican’s supposed fealty to the Hastert rule, his predecessor’s policy of not calling up legislation unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans.

But Boehner’s commitment to that policy during this Congress had been tossed out of the window from the very start, back in January, when he advanced a $51 billion supplemental appropriations package for Sandy recovery over the vehement objections of the small-government tea partyers in his caucus. He allowed it to pass with the votes of almost all the Democrats and just 20 percent of the Republicans.

Because that was only days after allowing a tax-increasing, fiscal-cliff-avoiding package to come to the floor with limited GOP support — which he signaled at the time as an exception to the Hastert rule — the Sandy bill was a concession that securing a majority of the majority would be his policy except when political imperatives dictated otherwise. And so it has been several times since, most recently on the bill ending the shutdown.

Don’t cross Christie. In the year since declaring New Jersey “stronger than the storm,” the governor has showed that even if his moderate ideology dooms his 2016 aspirations, his long memory and well-regulated fuse will ensure he wages a meaningful national campaign as the anti-Washington candidate — and the anti-Congress candidate, especially.

Christie remains furious that fighting within his own party delayed almost all federal aid to storm victims for three months. And, to mark this week’s anniversary, he left no doubt that he would campaign for president against a Washington in which Republicans are just as responsible as Democrats for the pettiness and dysfunction.

“We’ve done everything we possibly can, and I think in the immediate aftermath did a very good job,” Christie said of himself in an interview with The Associated Press. “Since then, we’ve kind of been hostage to two situations, the delay in the aid itself and then what I call the ‘Katrina factor,’ which is the much more detailed and difficult rules surrounding the distribution of the aid.”

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