Will Disaster Response In Puerto Rico Improve Under Biden? : The NPR Politics Podcast Puerto Rico has — five years after Hurricane Maria killed thousands — again been hit by a devastating storm. Trump was broadly criticized for a mismanaged response; will President Biden prove more capable?

And House Republicans have unveiled the policy program they'll push should they retake the chamber, as is expected. The Commitment To America program is rooted in culture war issues and is accompanied by a promise to "conduct rigorous oversight" of the Biden administration.

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Will Disaster Response In Puerto Rico Improve Under Biden?

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SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Susan Davis from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And Atlanta, come see us live. Join me, Mara Liasson, Asma Khalid, Tamara Keith, Miles Parks, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler and WABE's Rahul Bali as we do our show live at the Buckhead Theatre Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m. You can find more information about tickets, including student ones, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and WCLK Jazz. We hope to see you there.

PATRICK: This is Patrick (ph)...

SEAN: ...And Sean (ph)...

PATRICK: ...From Grass Valley, Calif.

SEAN: We are puppeteers and puppet makers.

PATRICK: Right now, we're dying up some puppet fleece for a new project that we're working on. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:13 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, September 23.

SEAN: Some things may have changed by the time you hear this, but we'll still be in the shop making puppets. All right. Here's the show.

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KHALID: I love that they kind of sound like puppeteers.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: They kind of do.

KHALID: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

KHALID: And today on the show, we are joined by NPR correspondent Adrian Florido. He's on the line from Puerto Rico. It is so good to have you with us, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Asma. Hi, Ron. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So five years ago, Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leaving thousands of people dead. And this week, another devastating storm, Hurricane Fiona, ripped through the island, dumping over 2 feet of water in places and leaving massive flooding and landslides in its wake. And now, people are beginning to assess the destruction, wondering how long it'll take to recover and why this has happened again just five years after Maria.

So, Adrian, you have been going out. What is the scope of the damage that you've seen?

FLORIDO: Well, most of the island is still without power, and hundreds of thousands of people have no clean running water. So that is a big emergency. I have been driving around the island and taking stock of the damage, as you said, which is worst in the communities along Puerto Rico's southern coast, where the storm made landfall, and in the rural mountains, where rivers overflowed and, in some instances, washed away houses and bridges. It caused landslides that blocked roads and killed at least two people.

In terms of the destruction, I mean, this obviously does not compare to the widespread devastation after Hurricane Maria, which really affected every single square inch of the island. What I'm seeing is many smaller crises across large swaths of the island, which have, of course, you know, been no less devastating for the families who are living through them. What is affecting almost the entire island, though, is the ongoing energy blackout. And of course, in many places where water is still not available - well, if water service isn't restored soon, then that starts to become a public health concern.

KHALID: For our international listeners who may not know, I do want to point out that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, and President Biden has approved a disaster declaration for the island. So, Adrian, what does that mean in terms of the types of federal assistance that you've seen being rolled out or that we can expect to see roll out?

FLORIDO: Well, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in charge of administering that disaster declaration. And what that will mean is that families who live in communities that were affected by the storm will be eligible for federal aid, for losses to personal property and damage to their homes. That was just declared yesterday, and so we haven't actually seen that be rolled out yet. But that is sort of the big tranche of aid that will be available to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Fiona. But one thing I should mention, Asma, is that as part of this disaster declaration, the towns where Hurricane Fiona made landfall and some of the towns that were most devastated by flooding were inexplicably left off of the list of towns whose residents qualify for this individual aid.

KHALID: Ron, I want to bring you into the conversation because there is always a political conversation around natural disasters. And I'm thinking - as we've been discussing the situation in Puerto Rico, I've been thinking back to the response from the Trump administration five years ago after Hurricane Maria and the way that that was all interpreted. So can you kind of explain to us what are the political consequences of what's going on right now and how President Biden is or is not responding?

ELVING: Natural disasters are a natural opportunity for administrations to show themselves in the best possible light, so this has been a great boon to a few politicians. But it's also been an opportunity for the government to fail rather egregiously, invisibly.

So of course, the classic example, George W. Bush in 2005 - everything good and bad that had happened up to then in his presidency was more or less forgotten for at least a period of time as he struggled to get aid to people in New Orleans, where the devastation, the death, the people who were still away from their loved ones went on for weeks, went on for months. And clearly, the federal government had not been properly prepared. But worse yet, in the days after, it seemed as though George W. Bush were simply dismissing it. He told the guy in charge he was doing a great job, awesome job. It was a terrible public relations disaster.

By contrast, in 2012, Barack Obama got a real benefit as he was running for reelection from the strong reception, including from a Republican governor in New Jersey, all praising him for how he handled damage from Superstorm Sandy. And that was a big plus for him.

Five years ago, Donald Trump's response to Puerto Rico was he didn't seem to consider it an actual job for himself or his administration. He went down. He tossed out rolls of paper towels. It was a terrible visual. So the opportunity here to really capture people's attention can be a huge plus or a huge negative.

KHALID: You know, I recognize what you're saying, Ron, about how President Trump handled the situation after Hurricane Maria. You know, that being said, he did visit the island, and we don't yet have word, at least at this point, that President Biden is going to be going down. We haven't seen that on his schedule. And I'm curious, Adrian, are the Puerto Ricans that you've been speaking with satisfied with how the Biden administration has responded so far?

FLORIDO: You know, Asma, it's too early to say. I will say that based on the response to Hurricane Maria, people aren't expecting a whole lot. It's been an incredibly slow recovery from Hurricane Maria, in large part because the overwhelming majority of the more than $70 billion that Congress allocated for the island's recovery hasn't even been spent yet. We got a sense of how slow that money has been to arrive last week, when an official from the Government Accountability Office testified before Congress.

And now with Fiona, we're seeing the consequences of that. You know, projects that were in the works to rebuild from Maria were wiped out. A temporary bridge was washed away, recreational facilities that had been recently repaired or were still in process of being repaired flooded, lampposts knocked over, homes that had only temporary patches done to them after Maria - waiting for longer-term repairs - flooded or blown off roofs again.

KHALID: Adrian, what's been the challenge in spending this money?

FLORIDO: There are a lot of reasons. One is that there's been a lot of bureaucratic red tape placed on this money that local officials have been complaining about for a long time. Another problem is that a lot of this money is being disbursed on a reimbursement model. In other words, towns, which is where most of this money is being spent, have to front a lot of the money up first and then get reimbursed. And we're talking about towns on an island that is in an economic crisis, where there's just no money - a debt crisis. And so that is slowing things down a lot, too.

Federal officials have complained that there's a lack of knowledge and capacity within Puerto Rican government agencies that has slowed down the ability to spend this money. But it's really important, Asma, to take into consideration that because of Puerto Rico's economic crisis and because of a lot of the austerity policies that have been posed here by a federal oversight board tasked with getting Puerto Rico out of debt, government agencies have just been sort of decimated in terms of their actual ability to even keep employees on. And so it's a sort of complex issue. But the upshot is that five years after Maria, almost none of the money that was allocated by Congress has been spent here.

KHALID: Well, Adrian, thank you very much for taking the time to join us. We really appreciate it.

FLORIDO: Thanks.

KHALID: And we will continue to look forward to hearing your reports on NPR's air. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, what House Republicans intend to do if they win a majority in Congress.

And we're back. And we're joined now by NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Hey there, Sue.

DAVIS: Hey, Asma.

KHALID: So House Republicans were in suburban Pittsburgh today, outlining their agenda if they win control of the House in November. Their agenda is called a Commitment to America. Here's Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: So if you're like everybody else we hear, whether you can afford it, whether you feel safe, the challenge of your children getting lost behind our government that's run amok - who has a plan to change that course? We do.

KHALID: So, Sue, tell us about this legislative plan.

DAVIS: Well, it's big on ideas and short on specifics, which is pretty common for these agenda rollout items before an election. Republicans are really focusing on big themes - the economy, safety, personal freedom and accountability. And a lot of it, frankly, is going to sound pretty familiar. It follows along the lines of traditional, conservative orthodoxy - keep taxes low, cut government spending as plans to reduce inflation.

It does, notably, also wade into some of the social debates of the moment. You know, Republicans say they will advance federal bills to restrict abortion access - abortion politics obviously top of mind in this election year. They double down on their commitment to protecting the Second Amendment, you know, obviously no support for restricting any gun access. And they also weighed in on debate over trans rights. They say they would advance legislation that would block trans women from being able to participate on women's sports teams - and a big focus on safety from legislation that would do more to close the southern border with Mexico, to saying that they would pass bills to put 200,000 more cops on the street.

KHALID: Sue, one thing I wanted to ask you about is the sense that if Republicans were to take control of the House, they would begin investigations into President Biden...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: ...And that there would be this sense of digging in to all sorts of things.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

KHALID: Can we expect to see that? Did they talk about that at all?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, government accountability is one of those pillars. And in this regard, it's probably where a Republican majority would have the most impact. Regardless of what happens with the Senate, it's going to be split government, right? Like, Joe Biden will still be the president for the next two years, so he's not going to advance any of these purely partisan bills even if they pass the House. Where Republicans will have power is subpoena power and control of the committee process and the oversight committees.

And, I mean, it'll probably be a shorter conversation to tell you what they don't want to investigate, right? I mean, they're looking at everything from the way the administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They have threatened to look into the president's family, specifically his son, Hunter Biden, and his business ties. They want to investigate the CDC, the origin of the coronavirus and China. I mean, just a laundry list of - I would describe it as grievances, really, against the Democratic Party and against this administration in particular. And frankly, there's a lot of a political edge here because it is a bludgeon that they can use against this administration ahead of the 2024 election, where President Biden is still debating whether he's going to run for reelection or not.

KHALID: And, Ron, what Sue's describing makes it sound like, culturally, this is all going to feel really different in Congress. There's just going to be a lot more drama than what we've seen for the past maybe two years.

ELVING: Well, if you can imagine the drama that has surrounded the January 6 investigating committee - which, by the way, will be all done with, particularly if the Republicans take over, but probably all wrapped up even if they don't - and that drama and the degree to which people tuned into it - people watched it on television - some of that may transfer to some of these investigations, especially the ones that have a person involved in the hot seat, perhaps, whose last name is Biden - anyone from the Biden family, anyone too close to Joe Biden. All of that will be devoted not only to making it more difficult for Joe Biden to be reelected, but just making it more difficult for the Democrats to set the agenda in general.

I think it's fair to say that the No. 1 task for the Republicans in control of House or Senate or both is to put an end to the Joe Biden presidency so that there's really nothing else that he can accomplish. He has two more years to serve it out. And whether he runs for reelection or not, the day they take over, he becomes a lame duck. And the achievements that once might have seemed conceivable or possible for the Biden administration will all be in the rearview mirror.

DAVIS: I think one important thing to think about in this context of a possible Republican majority is what kind of majority it would be. And it would be a more conservative, more far-right majority than even we saw under the Trump administration. I mean, a lot of the moderates in Congress have either lost their reelections, are retiring, and the people that would be coming in are much more in the Trumpian mold, right? Like, you would have more election deniers in the conference. You would have people that really want red meat, base politics as the median set point for the average Republican lawmaker. And the impulses of the party are moving further to the right. And I think that that would be a challenge for Republican leadership. I mean, you can only give in to your base instincts so much before it can actually hurt you in the broader general election context.

And I think this is going to be a real challenge for Kevin McCarthy. We don't know for certain that he would be speaker of the House. You still have to win an election to be speaker of the House, where you have to win a majority of the whole House, not just a majority of your party. And he would have tremendous leadership challenges in managing a party that, I think, wants to do a lot of things that might not necessarily be in lockstep with the majority of the country but is absolutely where a majority of self-identified Republican voters are.

ELVING: You know, and I think we should remember here that we have been here before. We have seen something very similar to this after the Republicans took over House and Senate in 1994...

DAVIS: Sure.

ELVING: ...Two years into Bill Clinton's presidency, and they immediately began investigating him on a broad range of fronts. And they immediately demanded an end to everything that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton - the first lady at the time, but someone who was very much involved in policy, especially on health care - everything that they wanted to do. And that did not necessarily work out exactly the way they had in mind.

They had something then called the Contract with America - very much, if you will, the parent of the Commitment to America - and that did not really pan out all that well. They had term limits in there - didn't get done. They had a budget-balancing amendment to the Constitution that didn't get done. They did change a lot of the internal rules in the House, and I suspect that could be accomplished again, but we've seen this before.

And we should remember that what happened was Bill Clinton played off of it rather skillfully and in the end proved to be a little more popular than those Republicans running the House and Senate, especially Newt Gingrich, who was running the House, and he got reelected in '96. And I'm not saying Biden is going to run again, but we might see that same sort of overreach happen. And that's something of a caution for the new Republican leaders.

KHALID: Ron, I'm glad you brought up '94 because I had wanted to ask you - both, actually - about some sense of historical perspective. Because as I was listening to you, Sue, describe the task of accountability, I was struck by the notion that one of the primary jobs that, you know, Republicans believe they would have if they took over the majority would be to run these investigations into the current president. And that is essentially what Democrats did when, you know, they had President Trump in power.

DAVIS: Sure.

KHALID: And is this kind of just the norm now, that there's really no ambition to work together on any piece of legislation? And when you've got the majority in the House but there's a president of the opposite party in power, is it both sides just see their job solely to just run investigations and continue to do that? I mean, is that the primary responsibility now?

DAVIS: I mean, oversight has absolutely become more of a partisan impulse than it had at other points in congressional history. Historically, Congress has absolutely been able to do bipartisan oversight investigations at times. In this current, modern context - you're right. Like, oversight, especially in divided government, is all about going after the other guy.

And we've said this a ton on the podcast, but I want to keep reminding people of it just in terms of the climate in Congress. The - January 6 was a very defining event in terms of intra-lawmaker relations, and they have been poisonous on Capitol Hill since, particularly in the House. And so you had a Democratic majority that took a lot of steps that I think Republicans intensified negative relationships. You know, Democrats put up metal detectors outside the House floor because they basically were saying they saw their Republican colleagues as threats to themselves. They instituted fines against lawmakers that - when Republicans broke those rules.

And now I think the animating impulse for a Republican majority is - a lot of it's retribution. They want to get back at Democrats for the stuff that they saw that they did that they thought was unfair. They've been very clear they're going to get rid of those metal detectors. They've made clear that they have the same intention to remove certain Democratic lawmakers from committees, people like Adam Schiff on the Intelligence Committee. They're already saying they'll block him from serving on that committee because Republicans didn't like the fact that Democrats used their power to block people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican from Georgia who's been quite a controversial lawmaker. I don't think that needs much explanation here.

So there's going to be a lot of tit for tat. And part of that is because Republicans and Democrats don't get along very well right now. And when they win the majority, there is this element of, like, we got to get back at those guys. And I think that is been intensified and is likely to only intensify if you just look at what Republicans are promising to do in public on the record.

KHALID: And just a quick caveat here - you know, Republicans do not currently have the majority. We are having this conversation because, to some degree, they are expected to take the chamber. The party that doesn't have the presidency almost always does take control of the House during the midterms. But again, this is not to say that they currently have control, and that's not a guarantee. Ballots are only just starting to be cast.

All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. That is the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about - politics or otherwise.

And I'm going to go first today. I would say it's a story of inspiration. I have been obsessed with what is going on right now in Iran. There's a woman who was taken into police custody by the morality police in Iran because of the way she was dressed, with - it seems like not wearing her headscarf properly. And she ended up dying while in police custody. And over the last few days, you have seen massive, massive protests on the streets of different cities across Iran, with women - often people who are, you know, frankly young enough that they were not even born when the Iranian revolution occurred - taking to the streets and protesting against, you know, what they have been living under.

And I've just been struck by - I don't know. I think that, like, a lot of times we look at politics, and you feel this force of cynicism - right? - that, like, things cannot change. And I wonder, like, gosh, what does it got to be like to grow up in a place where you feel like you don't have fundamental choices?

DAVIS: I thought it - I agree with you. And it's one of those situations where I feel like social media and the internet have brought so much, like, negativity into politics in so many ways. But in situations like this - especially in countries that do not have the same certainly protest freedoms that we have here, I think that it has been such a cause for good. I mean, these images and what we're seeing is only really possible because of the social media age. And I think it has a way to disrupt and empower people in ways that can be very inspiring. And especially these women - I think it's so brave what they're doing, wherein, like, protesting itself could get you killed. And they're doing it anyway, and it's been really remarkable to watch.

KHALID: So, Ron, what can you not let go of?

ELVING: Once again, it's the cyclical nature of history - especially in politics, especially in Washington. This whole controversy over the documents that former President Trump had with him at Mar-a-Lago is bringing back memories of Watergate and particularly a couple of kind of common wisdoms. No. 1 - it's not the original crime. It's the cover up. It's the things that are done in an attempt to get away with whatever was controversial in the first place. And the second one is be careful what you wish for. At critical points, the Nixon folks thought that they had things under control because they got somebody in charge they thought would be friendly.

And we're seeing something possibly, possibly playing out here in the decision made by several judges down in Atlanta on a circuit court of appeals there, overturning the favorable rulings that created the special master position. And a couple of them are Trump appointees, and they were not hearing - the arguments they were hearing from Trump's lawyers were just not registering with them at all. They were not impressed, and they were not impressed by the lower court order from a judge who did turn out to be pretty friendly to Trump. She was also a Trump appointee.

And then finally, the special master himself - the person who has been appointed to go back over all these documents - this is supposedly what President Trump wanted - he's been very tough so far in rejecting the arguments from Trump's lawyers and does not seem to be the port of refuge that the Trump folks were looking for. So something playing out there that I think we saw back in the Watergate years - be careful what you wish for.

DAVIS: History doesn't repeat, but it echoes, right, Ron?

ELVING: It rhymes.

KHALID: (Laughter) Sue, what about you?

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go of is there is a new show coming out, and it's going to parody NPR.

KHALID: No.

DAVIS: Mike Judge, who I think is probably best known for creating "Beavis And Butthead," just got - inked a new deal to put out a new show. It's going to be called "In The Know." And it's not just about, like, parodying public radio - parodying NPR specifically. Like, they name-check us in the press release about the show. It's going to be focused on a host named Lauren Caspian, who is NPR's third-most popular host...

KHALID: Wonder who that's supposed to be?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ... Who's described as a well-meaning, hypocritical nimrod, just like you and me. And also, the show is going to be stop-motion puppets. It's not going to be real, live actors. And it's going to kind of skewer NPR, the diverse crew of NPR staff who it says in the release are, quote, "also puppets and nimrods."

So as one of the nimrods, I'm actually looking forward to it. I think we have to have a sense of humor about ourselves, and I at least hope the show is funny, right? If they're going to make fun of us, at least be funny.

KHALID: We have to watch it together. I feel like there should be a screening at NPR (laughter) to collectively laugh about this.

ELVING: We truly have a puppeting (ph) - a puppet theme today, do we not? We have a puppeteer for the time stamp, and now we have puppets at the end.

DAVIS: Oh, it comes full circle.

ELVING: Who's writing this stuff? It's really pretty good.

DAVIS: It's, like, tying a bow on the episode today.

KHALID: Sue, this is going to end up in that show then, if they feel like our humor here is good.

DAVIS: Look, if they're going to make fun of me, at least make it a good-looking puppet is all I'm asking for, Mike Judge.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Send in your timestamps for next week. We are doing another theme. Whoo-hoo (ph). So next week's theme is going to be weird or special vehicles. You should tell us about your car, your e-bike, your horse, your tractor, your submarine, your scooter. Whatever it is, send it to nprpolitics@npr.org.

Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Thanks to Krishnadev Calamur, Brandon Carter, Maya Rosenberg and Lexie Schapitl.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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