Puerto Rico Got Two Hurricanes And This Lousy T-Shirt
This is a story about the Trump White House telling Congress to get bent because the president wanted to stick it to his enemies. But it's not a story about "doing us a favor though" in Ukraine. This is a story about Puerto Rico, which is still waiting for billions of dollars in relief funds allocated to it by Congress after Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated the island in September of 2017.
Why YES, that is almost four years ago. And YES, Congress does have budget authority under the United States Constitution. But San Juan's mayor was mean to Trump and failed to show appropriate gratitude when he showed up to throw paper towels at Puerto Ricans, so Trump told his staff in September of 2018 that he didn't want to spend one dollar of disaster relief on Puerto Rico. After which his administration threw up roadblock after roadblock to disbursing the funds, some of which were patently illegal.
Do we have proof that the Office of Management and Budget defied Congress and threw sand in the gears at the behest of the former president?
No, we do not. Because in the main, no political appointees from OMB or the Department of Housing and Urban Development cooperated with HUD's Inspector General when she tried to figure out what the hell happened here. Most Trumplanders refused to be interviewed, and those who did agree made farcical assertions of executive privilege to avoid answering questions. Just like they did with the Ukraine impeachment!
Yesterday the Washington Post published a report by HUD's Inspector General on the delay in disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico. It makes for pretty dense reading, but if you are the kind of person who loves acronyms and gets off on administrative procedure, you'll love it.
If you're a normal person, just know that disbursing congressionally allocated money is an enormously complicated process. Here, have a flow chart ... and maybe a Red Bull.
Now we know how Russ Vought, head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), knew just what levers to pull when he was ratfucking the Ukraine defense allocation — practice, practice, practice on poor Puerto Rico. Because there's a lot of room for executive branch fuckery in those blue arrows, and the Trump administration took full advantage of it.
PR and the Virgin Islands were just two of the 16 states and territories receiving money under the relief bill, but OMB insisted that just those two be hived off for special review. Between November 2018 (oh, hey, that's right after Trump told his people not to give PR any money) and July 2019, OMB and HUD went back and forth over conditions the White House wanted to impose on Puerto Rico. In addition to a "line item veto" on every expenditure — which is really not how block grants work — the OMB wanted PR to enact various reforms wholly unrelated to the funds themselves.
What do property tax assessments, minimum wage requirements, and housing code enforcement on unrelated projects have to do with disaster relief?
NOTHING. Which is why HUD's lawyers told OMB that it was totally illegal to demand that PR jump through extra hoops to get the money Congress had already granted them.
Here, have another chart.
You may remember the Impoundment Control Act from the Ukraine impeachment hearings. Or maybe you've blocked that all out. In any case, none of this shit was legal, and yet, the process dragged on.
"How many poison pills are in here?" former HUD Deputy Secretary Brian Montgomery emailed his colleagues in April of 2019.
Another HUD staffer told the IG that it was "kind of like Groundhog Day, just keeps coming back. And that's . . . where your frustration will set in. . . . . It's almost like we're going to keep bringing this back to you until you just eat it."
And it's still going! Some of this money hasn't made it out the door yet.
We'll never find out what happened here, thanks in no small part to brazen stonewalling by Trump appointees, most notably Vought and HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
Carson refused to be interviewed without HUD's attorney in tow. As the IG explained to Carson and other witnesses who made the same demand, they could bring their own attorneys to the deposition, but not government counsel, since government's interest does not coincide with that of people describing possible internal wrongdoing.
Carson was never interviewed, despite leading HUD, the agency which was nominally conducting an internal review. Other witnesses who did deign to appear refused to answer any questions about their dealings with OMB, invoking that magical cloak of executive branch privilege Donald Trump and his minions invented on January 20, 2017. IG Rae Oliver Davis, a Trump appointee, reminded them that (a) that's not how privilege works, and (b) even if it did, cooperating with the probe wouldn't waive the privilege, since the HUD's IG is a part of the executive branch and they could assert privilege after the fact to prevent public disclosure. But no dice.
And with OMB, it was even worse. Vought and his merry band of ratfuckers spent all of 2020 stonewalling the IG. Initially they declined interviews, saying that they needed to go through a round of written questions first. Then they objected to the questions. Then they objected to the replacement questions. Then they agreed to answer the replacement questions by December 14, 2020. Then they missed the deadline. Then they were private citizens again, and the IG had no power over them.
And as the Post points out, the Trump administration obstructed obstructed IG inquiries across multiple departments, including State, Transportation, and the Veterans Administration — much the way they did with the first impeachment. We'll probably never know all the illegal shit that went down in Trumpland.
But, it's not all bad news. With President Joe Biden in the White House, the people of Puerto Rico are finally getting the recovery funds they so desperately need. On Monday, HUD announced that all $8.2 billion was being released.
"Since its first days, the Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized action to enable stronger recovery for Puerto Rico," HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said. "The actions taken by HUD today will unlock access to funds Puerto Rico needs to recover from past disasters and build resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability. We are committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island's communities and help them build back better."
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Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.