Strange Bedfellows: SmarterSafer.org and the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012

By Lehrer, Eli | Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Strange Bedfellows: SmarterSafer.org and the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012


Lehrer, Eli, Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum


Like any complex legislative undertaking, the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act that President Barack Obama signed in July of 2012 represented dozens of compromises. (1) No major party to the discussion over flood insurance reform got everything it wanted. No one who participated contends that the reform--despite its significance--put the flood insurance program on stable ground for the long term. For all of its flaws and limitations, however, the Biggert-Waters Act was a breakthrough in one sense: it was a law that both traditionally conservative free-market groups and traditionally progressive environmental groups supported enthusiastically. (2)

Like most people involved in the effort to pass the bill, I entered this process with an idealistic goal--get the government out of the flood insurance business. (I still want that, although I now realize it will take a long time.) My own role was that of a think-tanker: I do research with no particular clients in mind and try to share it as widely as possible in a way that impacts public policy. Given my background and think-tank work, this goal was a natural one: I have spent the great bulk of my professional career at right-of-center think tanks that fight the environmental movement and have worked on Capitol Hill for a Republican Senate Majority Leader. All in all, I am a pretty conventional conservative. I voted for Mitt Romney, hate high taxes, like guns, oppose abortion, and want vastly smaller, less intrusive government. I am deeply suspicious of bureaucratic rulemaking and believe that environmental protection must sometimes take a back seat to economic growth. Although I count a number of environmentalists as friends, enjoy the outdoors, and believe that climate change is real, a problem, and human-caused, I likely do not count as a "green"--even a conservative green--by any commonly held standard. For example, I disagree with nearly every major environmental initiative the Obama administration has launched and think that current campaigns against natural gas development are misguided.

Yet, through SmarterSafer.org, some other conservatives and I became close policy allies of many environmentalists. This Essay is about this "strange bedfellows" coalition called SmarterSafer.org that I helped found, which helped pass the Biggert-Waters Act. In the next few pages, I describe the final bill itself, outline the role that SmarterSafer.org played in helping Congress shape what became law, describe how SmarterSafer.org came into being and operates, and offer some potential lessons that SmarterSafer.org's experience may hold for environmental activists and free-market conservatives who want to find common cause.

I. AN INTRODUCTION TO BIGGERT-WATERS

The Biggert-Waters Act may well be the largest revamping of the flood insurance program since its origin in 1968. (3) The law does four major things. First, it raises insurance premiums for some "nonconforming properties" that have been provided flood insurance at below-market rates since their communities first joined the program, generally in the 1970s. (4) Second, it establishes a variety of new procedures--including another level of oversight through a technical mapping advisory council--intended to improve the maps used to define flood rates, incorporating "the best available science"--including science related to potential climate change--into these new maps. (5) Third, it allows premiums charged to insured properties to rise at a significant rate on the basis of the new maps. (6) Finally, it allows--but does not require--the program to begin the process of transferring a portion of the nation's flood risk to the private sector through the purchase of reinsurance. (7) Together, these efforts put the flood program on a distinctly different course: they end the bulk of explicit subsidies for development in environmentally sensitive areas; greatly improve the maps used to determine which properties pay what rates for flood insurance; and give private industry a small opening to begin assuming flood insurance risk. …

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