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Congress must address flood risks

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It may be a new year, but Congress shouldn't waste time in tackling an old subject — extending the National Flood Insurance Program. While the NFIP doesn't expire until September 2017, reauthorization of the debt-plagued program has proved to be extremely contentious in recent years.

In the past, some lawmakers have tried to expand the program to include wind coverage, a politically attractive yet fiscally unsound idea given both the NFIP's extreme indebtedness and the existence of a private market. Others have proposed killing the program altogether, which would leave millions of property owners — including some commercial enterprises — without cover and without a private market to which to turn.

The result has been legislative gridlock, or worse. The program was allowed to lapse many times, even though it was reinstated retroactively. Attempts to place it on a more actuarially sound basis through rate increases and other efforts won approval, only to be rolled back as reforms foundered on political shoals.

Any reauthorization will have to include reforms such as aligning rates more closely with risks, even though such changes may be politically unpalatable for some lawmakers. But given the history of the NFIP and the tremendous debt it has run up in the past decade or so, serious debate is necessary.

Starting a serious discussion on the program's future sooner rather than later is particularly important given the congressional calendar. This is a presidential election year in which all members of the House of Representatives will stand for re-election, as will one-third of the Senate.

The official legislative calendar is short, and no doubt many lawmakers would like it to be even shorter so they have more time to make their cases to the voters back home.

Ideally, reauthorization discussions should start now and include not only examination of the program's actuarial underpinnings, but also the possibility of a greater role for the private insurance market. The reinsurance market has made clear that it would be willing to become involved in the U.S. flood marketplace.

September 2017 looks like a long way in the future. But given the demands of this election year, it's not so far away that the deadline for extending the NFIP can or should be ignored. That would be a shortsighted approach to a problem that demands a long-term solution.