Greg Abbott's Fair-Weather Federalism

The Texas governor sells out his supposed principles for billions in federal aid.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Tom Reel/ZUMA Press/Newscom

When he was attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbott liked to describe his job this way: "I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home." It was a joke, but it wasn't far from the truth. During his tenure as the state's top prosecutor, Abbott sued the Obama administration 31 times, bringing Washington to court over everything from immigration to federal limits on red snapper fishing.

When Abbott became governor in 2015, he didn't lose his enthusiasm for states' rights. His Texas Plan, unveiled last year, proposed nine constitutional amendments "to rein in the federal government and restore the balance of power between the States and the United States." When Texas' new attorney general, Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, Gov. Abbott offered his full support, denouncing the agency for "treading all over the State of Texas' sovereignty."

But in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Abbott has changed his tune on federal intervention.

"We could not be more appreciative of what the federal government has done, from the president on down, because everything we've asked for, they have given us," Abbott told George Stephanopoulos on August 27. A few days later, Abbott asked for more than $125 billion in federal aid.

The governor has made his peace with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) too, to judge from a September 9 letter to agency head Scott Pruitt requesting federal funds for flood and water infrastructure projects. EPA dollars, Abbott wrote, "could be used as bridge financing to galvanize the recovery process between now and the delivery of federal aid."

Almost immeidately, the accusations of hypocrisy started flying. "Conservative Texans Love To Fight The Feds Until They Need Them," announced one HuffPost headline. "In Texas, Distrust of Washington Collides With Need for Federal Aid," declared The New York Times.

They're not wrong about Abbott: He's a hypocrite. But the problem with the governor's fair-weather federalism is the fair-weather part, not the federalism. Abbott is choosing a path that won't just erode Texas' independence; in some ways it will actually hinder Texas' recovery from Harvey.

Under the 1988 Stafford Act, which governs federal disaster relief efforts, federal aid is permitted only when a disaster "is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments." That isn't the case here. "The federal government is only supposed to get involved in disasters that are truly beyond states' ability to handle," says Chris Edwards, a tax policy scholar at the Cato Institute. "That's not true of Harvey."

Harvey was undeniably severe and destructive, destroying some 10,000 homes and killing 82 people. But as Edwards points out, Texas has a "country-sized economy" that is more than capable of responding to the hurricane.

Situation reports from the Texas Division of Emergency Management show just how many resources Texas' state government was able to deploy to protect people during the storm. By September 5, for example, officials from Texas Highway Patrol, the Parks and Wildlife Department, and other agencies evacuated 41,054 people. The Texas National Guard had deployed 16,917 personnel, 60 boats, and over 800 land vehicles to assist these civilian first responders, and the state health department had completed over 750 missions, evacuating over 2,875 patients.

Private action was a key component of the Harvey response too. Business owners converted their stores into makeshift shelters, the famed Cajun Navy rescued residents trapped by flood waters, and private companies donated an estimated $157 million in the days immediately following the storm. These efforts were undertaken largely by local actors, using their on-the-ground knowledge to respond to the area's immediate needs.

The federal response to Harvey, by contrast, has been primarily financial, with an eye toward future rebuilding, not immediate relief. Rather than responding to the needs of local communities, the feds do the reverse: Local communities must respond to the demands of the federal government.

In Edwards' words, "every flow of money from the federal government has regulations attached which limits states' flexibility."

Take the Community Block Development Grants (CBDG). Though not originally designed for disaster relief, these have been increasingly drawn in that direction; this month Congress appropriated $7.4 billion in CBDG funds to deal with this year's natural disasters. In Texas, that money is administered by the state's General Land Office (GLO); the program provides relocation and reconstruction subsidizes to storm-affected homeowners, rental assistance to tenants, and money for economic recovery programs. Because these efforts are federally funded, the GLO notes, "there are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the use of these funds."

Indeed there are. Individuals and local governments looking to take advantage of CBDG money must comply with 156 pages of rules from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the CBDG program. On top of that, there's environmental review standards, prevailing wage requirements, federal procurement rules, and accessibility regulations.

Complying with these requirements is taking up more and more of Texas officials' time and effort. As one GLO spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, "We're making sure that across the coast, our local leaders know that their communities need to document, document, document, because that helps with our request to the federal government." Most of the GLO's Texas Rebuilds page is taken up by a request that citizens send pictures of their damaged properties to the agency so as to expedite the allocation of federal funds.

In the short term, this focus on regulatory compliance means that storm-ravaged communities are setting aside disaster relief efforts to engage in federally mandated paperwork. In the long term, it means that the areas affected by Hurricane Harvey will be rebuilt in accordance with the preferences of policy makers in Washington. That hardly sounds like the sovereign Texas that Greg Abbott spent years defending. But by demanding that the federal government take the lead in rebuilding efforts, it is the Texas he's choosing now.

This is, to be fair, what a lot of voters want. Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, says Texans tend to support both independence from federal rules and assistance from the federal pocketbook.

"Texas political culture has traditionally been independent of the United States, but at the same time, we pay our taxes too, so you're going to help us out when its necessary," he says. "Texans, we expect the federal government to come in because we can't handle this ourselves." Given the scale of the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, Taylor says, there is little appetite for tapping state resources to pay for the rebuilding effort.

This is not to say that Texas lacks the money. The state has stashed about $10 billion in its Economic Stabilization Fund. By statute, the fund is intended to respond to economic disasters, not natural ones. But it has been repurposed for disaster relief before, and it certainly can be again. Abbott would just need to reconvene Texas' part-time legislature—not scheduled to meet again until January 2019—for a special session.

Abbott has rejected the idea, saying that a special session is not necessary for Harvey relief. Notes Taylor, "It is politically tricky for Abbott, who's running for reelection next year, to all of the sudden start tapping that money for disaster relief when people would turn around and say, 'Don't we pay federal taxes to FEMA? FEMA should be giving disaster relief.'"

Indeed, it's hard to imagine any politician asking a state's citizens to draw down government savings, forgo spending on public services, or pay higher taxes just to replace willingly offered federal dollars. The federalization of disaster response has given state politicians every incentive to shift the burden of local disasters onto national taxpayers. And politicians, including erstwhile federalists like Gov. Abbott, are going to respond to incentives.

Taylor, for his part, does not believe Abbott will lose too many votes over holding out his hand to the feds, "I think that voters are probably more happy that he's taking the money right now.

"But," he adds, "if I saw him show up to campus, I'd tell him to his face he's a hypocrite."

NEXT: Stop Encouraging People to Live in Dangerous Places

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  1. How dare you. Now is not the time to be holding people's feet to the fire. There was a disaster. Wait until the weather is a little fairer and then we can talk.

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  2. To be fair, Texas taxpayers pay a shitload to the federal government and could probably be more able to pay for damages in Texas if more of that money was returned to Texans.

    1. There has to be a chart or some data out there which breaks down state by state how much is paid in federal taxes. Minions, get on that.

      1. Nice reference back to article with child labor. Huzzah!

      2. This won't make Texans happy though. They are certainly not in the top ranks for paying their own way.


  3. So the place to make a stand against federal aid and control of the states is to turn down federal aid to people whose homes were destroyed by an enormous flood. Yeah, that will really prove a point. It would show how principled Abbott is. It would also cause federalism to be associated with telling flood victims to go fuck themselves and how it is their job to suffer for Abbott's principles. And Libertarians wonder why they lose.

    1. telling flood victims to go fuck themselves

      There must be some alternative between that and "here's free money to build in a flood-prone region and yes we'll give you more after the next flood destroys your house again".

      1. As long as the feds keep offering free money, there isn't an alternative from Abbott's perspective. If you don't like this, the solution is to kill it at the federal level. Expecting governors to turn down free money and taxpayers to be okay with it, even though if the money isn't given to them it will be given to someone, is absurd.

  4. Individuals and local governments looking to take advantage of CBDG money must comply with 156 pages of rules from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the CBDG program. On top of that, there's environmental review standards, prevailing wage requirements, federal procurement rules, and accessibility regulations.

    Probably race and sex quotas too. They'll give you "free" money but it won't go half as far as it would if you spent your own.

  5. New York got upwards to $100 billion from the feds when a catastrophe caused the destruction of three buildings. Later on, New Jersey and New York got billions from the feds for Sandy, the remnants of a tropical storm that didn't even qualify as a hurricane. Texas taxpayers accounted for a significant fraction of that money.

    Federal relief is now the system; only a sucker does not exploit the system. It's a crappy system, but it is the system.

    To criticize Abbott for hypocrisy in this case, one must be able to credibly forswear his own "entitlement" to Social Security, Medicare, ObamaCare subsidies, etc. I doubt that many libertarians will really do that. Even Ayn Rand took her social security check.

    1. That 9/11 payout bugs me to this day.

      Average people who lost a spouse or child to 9/11 got payouts even if they didn't have life insurance or on top of life insurance.

      I even think police and firefighter's families did not get extra above their city life insurance policies.

      I never saw a reason why civilians got so much money when that is what life insurance is for. Maybe insurance would not pay because of the whole war thing causing death.

    2. Have to agree. There is a point where being "principled" just makes you retarded.

      Should the anarchist turn away help from the fire department when they're trapped inside their burning house? Sometimes you have to operate in the world you live in, not the world you wish there to be, no matter if the world you wish makes a hell of a lot more sense than the one we have now.

      1. FYI: An anarchist would not consider it their house. No property rights and all.

        Good points though. I think a better solution is to limit government to something small and really debate those services that you really want under a reasonable budget. Small fire and police departments are typically government services but can be privatized too.

  6. Notes Taylor, "It is politically tricky for Abbott, who's running for reelection next year, to all of the sudden starts tapping that money for disaster relief when people would turn around and say

    Looks like we've literally lost another one to idiots and "common usage".

  7. Yes as long as we are paying 30%-40% of our income in federal income taxes it seems silly to pass up getting some of that back as diaster relief. Now if we actually shrank government down to the size of the postage stamp (or the one outlined in the constitution) then there would be a LOT more money staying in each state.

    1. This is left out of all lefty media stories about this issue.

  8. Federal aid for disaster relief is probably one of the few things the government should do for states otherwise why be a state at all.

    1. So you can threaten to poke California and New York in the eye every four years?

  9. RE: Greg Abbott's Fair-Weather Federalism
    The Texas governor sells out his supposed principles for billions in federal aid.

    A politician's actions contradicting his campaign promises?
    Now this is news!
    Does the NYT and CNN know about this?

  10. I am reminded of nincompoops chastising Rand for cashing her social security checks.

  11. Mr Britscgi, when the Feds stop stealing tax money, through taxes and idiot regulations, from Texans, you might have a point. Until then, I want Governor Abbott to steal back all he can manage.

    Now, go f*ck yourself with a frozen swordfish. Sideways.

  12. Well, this applies to Reason as well

    Yay, abortions funded by the government! Yay federal museums like the smithsonian!

  13. The Feds taketh and expect us to ask for our own money back...

  14. Is everything a glass half-empty to you idiots?

  15. Is everything a glass half-empty to you idiots?

  16. Central committee will whip you into submission, tax you to death, and if all else fails, take you as a person to court on a nothing burger charge, and keep you in court long enough to totally bankrupt you with lawyer's fees.

  17. Yes, Federal funds limit a state's flexibility but with Texas that may not be a bad thing. The state was so flexible that it allowed chemical plants to be built in residential neighborhoods and on flood plains. The fact that these flooded plants housing these chemicals, with nothing to stopthe normal chaiin reactions would explode when the flood waters washed out their generators, spewing dangerous chemical smoke in the air and contaminating both soil and ground water, wasn't a priority for them. Now the clean-up will be much more expensive than it needed to be and the American taxpayer will bear the cost. Unless steps are taken to eliminate these dangerous plants from flood plains and residential neighborhoods, this scenario will be repeated again and again. How many times must the taxpayer pay for Texas' refusal to act in the citizens best interest? Why should the chemical plant owners get a free ride while also requesting assistance to rebuild and offset their losses? As mothers everywhere have said,"If you can't take care of your toys then you can't have thrm". Enough is enough. This isn't the first explosion of a poorly or non-regulated chemical plant in the state and unless something is done it won't be the last.

  18. Are you serious? Texas may have a booming economy but it cannot suddenly create the millions needed to help Houston recover especially when many of those impacted by Harvey are the ones who would be doing much of the work in the oil and gas industry. I would like to also point out it is our state government is prohibited from running a deficit by our state constitution so even if the legislature approved, the money might not be available. The stabilization fund is allocated for very specific purposes none of which are disaster recovery/relief. Texas sends hundreds of millions to DC, so why is it a problem to request some in return when a catastrophic event occurs? We like to be independent of the Federal government but we are no idiots...

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