Since we’re a week away from an election President Obama is losing, his camp is pulling out all the stops to find a magical issue that might turn things around.
And since Hurricane Sandy has hit the most densely-populated area of the country this week, what better than a proposal by Mitt Romney to reorganize how the federal government approaches disaster relief as something to demagogue for electoral benefit?
Naturally, this opportunity couldn’t be passed up. Add FEMA to Big Bird, binders and bayonets.
At issue was this exchange during the CNN debate in the GOP primary:
KING: What else, Governor Romney? You’ve been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Missouri. I’ve been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with whether it’s the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?
ROMNEY: Absolutely. 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. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.
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. We cannot…
KING: Including disaster relief, though?
ROMNEY: We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.
What Romney did was to make three basic points. First, we need to begin decentralizing government so that locals and states can handle more of the load – even in the case of disasters. Second, we need to do this because the federal government has hit the wall and simply can’t run up any more debt even for things like disaster relief, so reprioritization has to take place and efficiency needs to take on a larger role. And third, it’s immoral to continue running up debt as we are.
The Democrat talking point from that statement is that Mitt Romney said it was immoral to expect other states and the Federal Government to have to play a role in disaster recovery. Which, naturally, is a lie – and a provable lie at that. The Romney campaign offered a brief statement yesterday which attempted to clarify its position…
“Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters.”
The New York Times yesterday published an editorial, with Sandy moving in, that amounts to an institutionalization of that lie…
Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.
Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.
From there came a rehash of Romney’s debate quote, and then something more…
Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.
It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.
The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.
Over the last two years, Congressional Republicans have forced a 43 percent reduction in the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. Representatives Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans have repeatedly tried to refuse FEMA’s budget requests when disasters are more expensive than predicted, or have demanded that other valuable programs be cut to pay for them. The Ryan budget, which Mr. Romney praised as “an excellent piece of work,” would result in severe cutbacks to the agency, as would the Republican-instigated sequester, which would cut disaster relief by 8.2 percent on top of earlier reductions.
Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages. After Mr. Romney’s 2011 remarks recirculated on Monday, his nervous campaign announced that he does not want to abolish FEMA, though he still believes states should be in charge of emergency management. Those in Hurricane Sandy’s path are fortunate that, for now, that ideology has not replaced sound policy.
Interesting that the Times would offer up the word “absurd” to describe Romney’s policy, since its arguments are absurd on their face.
Can states and perhaps the private sector do a better job than the federal government? Our experience in Louisiana lends a great deal of credibility behind that concept. We saw in Hurricane Katrina what the effect of horrendous local and state leadership can be, compared to Hurricane Gustav when local and state leadership was significantly improved. In Katrina’s immediate aftermath, just about the only things which functioned properly were private-sector relief efforts. Wal-Mart, for example, became a center for distribution of supplies to the stricken, while Ray Nagin’s flooded school buses and Kathleen Blanco’s meetings with Jesse Jackson got all the headlines. But in Gustav, the immediate aftermath of the storm saw a level of coordination and state leadership which allowed for a very quick recovery and a much more efficient operation.
And we also saw in Hurricane Katrina how much money is wasted when FEMA money deluges a recovery. Watch any episode of Treme and you’ll see that come to the forefront; sure, Treme is a fictional series about post-Katrina New Orleans, but it captures well the cascade of idiocy and waste – not to mention corruption – which pervaded New Orleans in the wake of that storm.
After all, Louisiana’s state budget swelled to some $30 billion thanks to Katrina dollars, and so much of that money was squandered on unsustainable expenditures that we’re in the midst of a fiscal hangover which is now in its third year with no end in sight.
The New York Times wouldn’t know or understand such things, as their coverage of Katrina recovery has focused largely on racial divides and “Bush lied” canards. But FEMA’s overspending doesn’t end with Katrina; it’s endemic. Certainly much of that overspending can’t be helped, since FEMA typically arrives on the scene of an emergency and often the watchword becomes “money is no object” in the immediate aftermath.
On the other hand, the more state and local capability to deal with disaster relief and recovery the less necessary it is for those massive, wasteful FEMA efforts. And when resources can be saved in preparation for disasters rather than used on wealth redistribution in non-emergency times – which leads to borrowing from China to pay for disaster recovery – it’s even more to our advantage.
That’s what Romney was trying to get across. And his principles are quite sound. Which shouldn’t be a surprise; one little-understood tenet of Mormon religious practice is the gathering of resources in preparation for catastrophe, and that’s a principle the rest of us might borrow from Mormons to an extent. It applies to families as well as communities as well as states, because America is an awfully big country to expect one federal agency to play Daddy to the rest of us – as much as that might disappoint the statists on the NYT editorial board.
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann, writing at Yahoo! Finance, takes issue with this “Romney wants to wipe out disaster relief” idea. In doing so he quotes former Bush Department of Homeland Security official and current Heritage fellow Matt Mayer, who suggested a changing FEMA portfolio…
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been responding to almost any natural disaster around the country, be it a contained three-county flood, or a catastrophe of near-epic proportions like Hurricane Katrina. As a result, many states and localities have trimmed their own emergency-response budgets, often leaving them ill prepared to handle even rain- or snowstorms without federal assistance. This leaves FEMA stretched far too thin and ill prepared to respond to grand-scale catastrophes. The “federalization of disasters” misdirects vital resources, leaving localities, states, and the federal government in a lose-lose situation. FEMA policies must be overhauled to let localities handle smaller, localized disasters, and to allow FEMA to respond fully and effectively when it is truly needed. If the status quo continues, it will be a disaster for everyone.
Mayer says there needs to be an elevated threshold for FEMA involvement, so as to save the agency for truly overwhelming disasters like Katrina or Sandy. That jives with Romney’s basic thrust that states should have a robust disaster management capability – assumedly one in line with their exposure. In California, for example, forest fires and earthquakes should take precedence and priority; in Louisiana, hurricanes; in Oklahoma, tornadoes. A federal agency has to be all things to all people and may not be able to operate in the most efficient way possible.
Such a reorganization, as any other policy consideration, is surely debatable as to its worth. But regardless of how you might come down on the question of how best to structure disaster relief we can agree that such a conversation is a valid one to have amid the billions of dollars in spending we’re throwing at these problems.
For the Left, though, those conversations aren’t useful. There’s a news cycle to win. So we’re going to call Romney’s ideas absurd, build straw men to the effect that he wants to deny aid to disaster victims and attack his character on the basis of those straw men.
That the New York Times would gleefully engage in such partisan hackery on the eve of the worst disaster since 9-11 in its primary readership area is an indication just how low America’s “newspaper of record” has sunk. Sandy couldn’t punish the Times for their poor behavior, but perhaps the market ultimately will.
UPDATE: Funny how none of these “Romney wants to gut FEMA” attacks bother to mention the fact that Obama’s sequester actually does gut FEMA, right?
As Hurricane Sandy approaches the northeast United States, the left is attempting to politicize the storm, attacking Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), for wanting to shift more responsibility for disaster relief from the federal government to the states.
They ignore the fact that President Barack Obama’s proposal for the upcoming budget sequester would cut nearly $900 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including disaster relief, food and shelter, and flood management at both the federal and state levels.
The cuts, detailed on pages 94 through 96 of the White House’s sequestration proposal, released in mid-September, show how far the Obama administration has been willing to go in order to preserve the idea of tax hikes on “millionaires and billionaires” rather than reaching a comprehensive grand bargain on deficit reduction that does not place additional burdens on the economy or essential services.
As Bob Woodward notes in his definitive account of the debt ceiling negotiations, such a bargain was within reach in July 2011, before President Obama destroyed it.
Obama’s proposed cuts to FEMA include the following (emphasis added):
- Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program – $8 million
- State and Local Emergency Programs (non-defense) – $183 million
- State and Local Emergency Programs (defense) – $5 million
- United States Fire Administration and Training – $4 million
- Salaries and Expenses (non-defense) – $75 million
- Salaries and Expenses (defense) – $7 million
- Disaster Relief – $580 million
- Emergency Food and Shelter – $10 million
- Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program – $3 million
- National Pre-disaster Mitigation Fund – $3 million