Obama's Disaster-Prone Presidency

Would it shock you to hear that presidents play politics with disaster relief?

Last week brought raging Colorado wildfires and a massive mid-Atlantic storm that killed 13 and left three million without power. And when hard luck and bad weather strike, a presidential visit is sure to follow. It's part of the modern president's job to descend upon the wounded land, ministering to the afflicted with soothing words and truckloads of federal aid.

George W. Bush took to that role eagerly, with a record-setting average of 129 presidential disaster declarations a year. Bush waxed messianic in May 2007 when he manifested himself in a tornado-ravaged Kansas burg, aiming to "lift people's spirits ... and to hopefully touch somebody's soul by representing our country ... to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead."

Barack Obama, who shattered the single-year record for disaster declarations with 242 last year, added three more to this year's total last week, in West Virginia and swing states Colorado and Ohio.

Obama didn't threaten to touch anybody's soul when he alighted in Colorado Springs Friday, but he did invoke his familiar, familial theme: "When challenges like this happen, all of us come together as one American family."

Pardon me for injecting a note of cynicism into this atmosphere of family togetherness, but would it shock you to hear that presidents play politics with disaster relief? Current law gives them enormous power to do so, and it seems they don't try very hard to resist the temptation.

The 1988 Stafford Disaster Relief Act authorized the president to issue disaster declarations virtually at will, giving him broad discretion over the disbursement of federal aid. In a study published last fall, Boston University political scientist Andrew Reeves crunched the numbers on presidential disaster declarations from 1981 to 2004, and found strong evidence that presidents distribute aid with one eye toward the Electoral College.

"In the post-Stafford Act era," Reeves explains, "a competitive state is expected to receive over twice the number of disaster declarations as a noncompetitive state." What's more, the FEMA porkbarrel pays off politically: "Voters reward presidents for disaster declarations to the tune of over 1 percent at the ballot box."

After Congress expanded presidents' disaster relief powers in 1988, Reeves notes, they were, unsurprisingly, "more likely to grant [relief] in year four as the presidential election neared." This year, Obama's running behind 2011's record-setting pace -- but there's time left before November, and plenty of incentive to convert natural disasters into political gain.

"What I'm not gonna do is wait for Congress," President Obama told "60 Minutes" last December: "wherever we have an opportunity and I have the executive authority to go ahead and get some things done, we're just gonna go ahead and do 'em."

Executive orders on housing and student loans, regulatory waivers in health care and education, discretion over immigration enforcement -- the president has enormous unilateral power to reward favored constituencies in the run-up to Election Day, as Obama's "We Can't Wait" offensive has shown. In most cases, he enjoys those powers because feckless legislators ceded them.

Presidential control over the FEMA porkbarrel is one more weapon in that political arsenal. While few in Congress are likely to sign on to the proposal by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to abolish FEMA, they can at least, as the Heritage Foundation's Matt Mayer argues, reform the Stafford Act to "establish clear requirements that limit the types of situations in which declarations can be issued -- eliminating some types of disasters entirely from FEMA's portfolio."

It's past time Congress started clawing back some of the territory it's ceded. We can't wait.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute, the author of "The Cult of the Presidency," and a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared

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  • ||

    Color. Me. Surprised.

    At the higher levels, there is nothing that the fucking parasites do that isn't political. Nothing.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I blame Bush

  • Vake||

    I heard he once ate a baby, pausing only from time to time to douse the poor infant in barbecue sauce.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Sweet Baby Ray's, of course?

  • John||

    George W. Bush took to that role eagerly, with a record-setting average of 129 presidential disaster declarations a year.

    The fact that the media held him personally responsible for every tragedy might have had something to do with that.

  • anon||

    I agree with you on that John; somehow, every natural disaster to stroll through the US was Bush's fault.

    I used to hate Bush, too. He looks like freaking Calvin Coolidge in comparison to the current admin though.

  • Ryan60657||

    Why can't cities, homeowners, states purchase private insurance to cover natural disasters, rather than having taxpayer money from Maine, Michigan and Montana be redistributed to those who choose to live in high-risk areas?? Freaking California burns down every 3 years, and taxpayers from the other 49 states bail them out -- effectively subsidizing all Californians to live there risk-free (or at least with much lower risk)!

    My rule: We'll bail you out once every 40 years. But if fire, flooding, hurricanes, etc. happen more frequently than that, too freaking bad. You're on your own.

  • John||

    This article only gets to half the problem of the Stafford Act. Sure disasters are declared too often. But the bigger problem is that federal aid goes to stuff it shouldn't. The Stafford Act was originally designed to restore government services after a disaster. If the hurricane comes in and the local police and fire department are overwhelmed, the feds come in and hand out checks and help. But it has now become a way to rebuild people's homes and businesses.

  • Ron||

    Blame California if you like but name one area that does not have problems.
    build in the forest, fire. build in the desert, no water build near the water, floods build near the coast hurricanes, build in mid-west tornadoes. and all of them eventually get earthquakes.
    you can not find a place that does not have a danger associated with it.

  • Ryan60657||

    Every place has risk. Some have more risk than others. Why should we socialize all risk?

    Californians and Floridians have more risk of fire/hurricanes than those who live in North Dakota, but they also arguably have more benefits. Why should they receive the benefits, but then pass the risk on to North Dakotans?

  • anon||

    Every place has risk. Some have more risk than others. Why should we socialize all risk?

    It's always the prisoner's dilemma. Given the choice, people will always choose to sacrifice a tiny bit of their own freedom if it guarantees them a return.

    Until we figure out a way to permanently limit the power and scope of government, it's a downward spiral. Hell, our last attempt was a pretty good one, and it only lasted what... 130 years?

  • wareagle||

    many places have risk but some have it on a magnified level, and those are the ones where the risk is socialized. When someone's summer/second home on the beach is blown away by a hurricane, you get the pay for part of the rebuilding cost.

  • MattRomney||

    Nobody here can deny that each state in the U.S is prone to natural disaster, but there are certain geographic locations that are more prone than others, yet people still CHOOSE to live there. How is it fair for one state to continually aid another state that frequently and historically has more natural disasters?

    Compare and contrast http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2007/3009/2007-3009.pdf

  • anon||

    More importantly, it allows the same dipshits in high-risk areas to rebuild their crap in high-risk areas at no personal cost.

  • Ron||

    I have to say it. This is why we are part of country, to help out fellow states when disaster do strike. That and Defense. But typically the problem is the abuse of that purpose.

  • wareagle||

    I have no problem with helping out my fellow man, but I have less than zero confidence in govt's ability to efficiently and effectively do it on my behalf.

  • T o n y||

    And when Republicans are in charge, they prove you, and themselves, right.

  • anon||

    And when Tony opens his mouth, he always proves himself to be a dipshit.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    And when you finally wipe Obama's spew off you chin, please keep it your self.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    He always forgets that Team Blue is just as responsible for our situation as Team Red ever was.

    Then again, what can you expect from a hateful bigot steeped in leftism?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Watch this... Tony will come back with some specious charges of racism, or whine that he should get a criticism pass due to his sexual orientation, or - if we're really lucky - he'll look down his nose at we the great unwashed and remind us how goddamn impressive and intelligent he is compared to us hillbillies.

    It's always fun!

  • Pagan Priestess||

    In other news, water is wet.

  • JoshSN||

    The article seems sound, but I would have appreciated one example of a declared disaster that clearly didn't fit the bill.

  • tee shirt pas cher||

    George W. Bush took to that role eagerly, with a record-setting average of 129 presidential disaster declarations a year. Bush waxed messianic in May 2007 when he manifested himself in a tornado-ravaged Kansas burg, aiming to "lift people's spirits ... and to hopefully touch somebody's soul by representing our country ... to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead."

  • ||

    After Congress expanded presidents' disaster relief powers in 1988, Reeves notes, they were, unsurprisingly, "more likely to grant [relief] in year four as the presidential election neared." This year, Obama's running behind 2011's record-setting pace -- but http://www.maillotfr.com/maill.....22_26.html there's time left before November, and plenty of incentive to convert natural disasters into political gain.

  • air max chaussures||

    Obama didn't threaten to touch anybody's soul when he alighted in Colorado Springs Friday, but he did invoke his familiar, familial theme: "When challenges like this happen, all of us come together as one American family."

  • Nike air max womens||

    Barack Obama, who shattered the single-year record for disaster declarations with 242 last year, added three more to this year's total last week, in West Virginia and swing states Colorado and Ohio.

    Obama didn't threaten to touch anybody's soul when he alighted in Colorado Springs Friday, but he did invoke his familiar, familial theme: "When challenges like this happen, all of us come together as one American family."

  • Mr. FIFY||

    That's "paternalistic", not "familial".

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