Never let a good hurricane or "frankenstorm" go to waste, right?
The past few days have been awash not just in detritus from Hurricane Sandy's smashing the East Coast but in politically motivated attacks on decentralized government and fact-free championing of that great American institution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
You've no doubt heard by now that once upon a time, Republican presidential contender called not just for the utter destruction of FEMA (best known for absolutely botching its early interventions into Hurricane Katrina and then compounding its incompetence by almost completely mishandling longer-term alleviation of pain and suffering along the Gulf Coast), but the slaughter of all its goats, chickens, and sheep.
As the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson has written,
Mitt Romney suggested that responsibility for disaster relief should be taken from the big, bad federal government and given to the states, or perhaps even privatized. Hurricane Sandy would like to know if he’d care to reconsider....
“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, [said Romney]. And if you can go further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
The Wall Street Journal (which is admittedly as in the tank for Romney as Robinson is in the tank for Obama) notes correctly that the response to Sandy is a triumph of local and state response to a weather-related disaster:
Citizens in the Northeast aren't turning on their TVs, if they have electricity, to hear Mr. Obama opine about subway flooding. They're tuning in to hear Governor Chris Christie talk about the damage to the Jersey shore, Mayor Mike Bloomberg tell them when bus service might resume in New York City, and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy say when the state's highways might reopen.
Energetic governors and mayors are best equipped to handle disaster relief because they know their cities and neighborhoods far better than the feds ever will, and they know their citizens will hold them accountable. The feds can help with money and perhaps expertise.
That's absolutely right and it's worth recalling that both Mike Bloomberg and Chris Christie were excoriated for incompetent responses by first responders during the blizzard that hit in December 2010. As they should have been.
Oh and what did Romney actually have to say in the debate that Robinson quotes above? Recall that last fall, the government was about to shut down over lack of funds (yet again) and $3.7 billion in FEMA funding was the conversation object that time around. Republicans said that cuts should be made elsewhere in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion to offset the cost. Democrats disagreed but eventually everything was all sorted out via more deficit spending (thank god!).
So in a Republican candidates debate, the moderator popped the question about federal spending and responsibilities using FEMA as a hook. After suggesting that pushing responsibility out of DC was a good idea, Romney continued:
"Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut—we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in."
I'm not voting for the guy, but I like the sound of what he's saying right there.
The Journal also points to two important facts that have been left out of most of the FEMA cheering by partisans. First, President Obama actually calls for cutting spending on the agency in his latest budget. Second, the agency has been steadily increasing the number of storms it declares as national disasters for the past 20 or more years. FEMA declared about 90 disasters a year under Clinton, 130 a year under Bush, and now over 150 under Obama.
Why is that a problem? As former DHS official and Heritage Foundation analyst Matt Mayer points out in a must-read column, it socializes the cost of local events to taxpayers who choose to live elsewhere. "Disasters such as tornadoes, fires, floods, snowstorms, severe storms, and other small-scale events have little to no regional or national impact and, therefore, no justification for federal involvement," writes Mayer in the Orange County Register.
Mayer is no FEMA abolitionist. Rather, as a former high-ranking official in a cabinet-level agency, he's concerned about how mission creep destroys the ability of the feds to respond when they actually should be involved due to the size and scope of a particular situation:
As FEMA is burdened by administering more...new declarations per year, it doesn't have time or money to focus on being prepared for catastrophic events, which is why seven years after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA still lacks key capabilities, according to the Government Accountability Office.
At the same time, while FEMA nationalizes routine natural disasters and shifts the costs of those events from the states in which those events occur to the other 49 states, states have defunded emergency management. This approach to natural disasters makes no sense.