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2. The Feds Should be in Charge of Everything!
The effect of Sandy on the outcome of Election 2012 will be debated for a long time but supporters of Obama and the Democrats are already making great hay about year-old comments by Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In a 2011 debate, the self-evidently barbaric challenger took time away from pinching babies to suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could be shrunken down and many of its responsibilites shifted to state and local governments. The former Massachsetts governor opined that, “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction."
To Washington Post columnist and reliable Obama supporter Eugene Robinson, such thoughts are nothing more than a "glib exercise in ideological purity" and just another way of transferring "unfunded liabilities to the states." The New York Times has flatly declared that "A Big Storm Requires a Big Government," which is sort of like saying that a foot-long hot dog needs a 12-inch bun. This sort of response - that the feds should not only be on the hook for just about everything that happens everywhere but that Washington alone is capable of coordinating effective relief efforts, is widespread.
And simply wrong. As Matt Welch noted earlier today, FEMA spends a whopping "$10 billion on disaster coordination and relief." For all sorts of reasons - the foremost being the immutable law of geography - first responders will always be largely drawn from local and state sources. Those are the people who will not only be most numerous but will also have the best knowledge of a given area. And other than immediate humanitarian aid, is there any reason to shift the costs of living near the ocean, or a river, or in a fire-prone desert area to taxpayers who choose not to inhabit places that are so risky and expensive? In a 2004 story for Reason, millionaire TV anchor John Stossel wrote about how federal dollars rebuilt his waterfront home on Long Island. Who would have thought that wealthy, politically powerful people would be able to get cheap insurance from the feds? While the exact program that benefited Stossel doesn't exist in the same form anymore, it's been replaced by similar deals - including a bipartisan boondoggle that President Obama signed into law just this summer.
Far from being some sort of paragon of competency and sagacity, FEMA is notorious even among other Washington-based bureaucracies for failure to perform. The terrifying extent of the agency's incompetence become horrifyingly visible during Hurricane Katrina (itself a case study in the failure of local, state, and federal governments to provide basic safety for residents). Democrats today can claim that everything's jake with FEMA now that Michael D. "Heckuvajob" Brown is gone, but that just isn't true, especially when it comes to the narrow question of disaster coordination. Consider this 2011 Government Accountability Office report, which flatly states that FEMA "has not followed sound management practices to design, administer, and evaluate pilot programs that advance and integrate state and federal catastrophic planning efforts." As often as not, the difference between a relatively quick and successful recovery effort - such as the one following the 2011 tornado that flattened Joplin, Missouri - and a botched one is the ability of locals to circumvent bureaucracy rather than wasting time engaging it.
The feds are good at throwing massive amounts of money at problems, but they remain pretty bad at actually fixing things. Part of the reason that the response to Sandy was so robust (and proactive) is that major local and state politicos in the affected areas - including New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell - all had experienced major weather-related SNAFUS in recent memory. These guys were on top of things because the last time around - during 2010's blizzard for Bloomberg and Christie, and last summer's freakish electrical storm for O'Malley and McDonnell - they were caught flatfooted and caught holy hell for it.
It's all to the good they were on tiptoes this time around, but it doesn't somehow point to increased efficiency on the part of FEMA or the feds more generally.
Next: I Told You This Was Coming!