The politics of FEMA’s future

Updated
 

With Hurricane Sandy poised to wreak havoc for millions of Americans, it seems like a good time to revisit Mitt Romney’s unusual vision for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In this clip, Romney was asked at a debate for the Republican presidential candidates about emergency-response efforts, and he suggested FEMA should be shuttered, moving responsibility to the states.

“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?”

Asked specifically about the federal government playing a role in disaster relief, Romney added, “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.”

Again, in context, he wasn’t talking about debt reduction in the abstract; Romney was specifically talking about FEMA and the federal role in responding to communities hit by disasters.

What’s more, Romney appears willing to put his (lack of) money where his mouth is – Romney’s budget plan would mean at least a 34% cut to FEMA’s budget.

I should note that there may be some who find this perspective compelling. Maybe Romney’s correct, the argument goes, and FEMA’s doors should be closed. Maybe Washington should just let states, municipalities, and families fend for themselves when disaster strikes, as Republican policymakers focus solely on debt reduction.

In case anyone’s tempted to believe this is wise, I’d note two things.

First, this is an incredibly callous approach, wholly at odds with the American tradition. When making a list of tasks the federal government can and should tackle, one need not be a far-left ideologue to think emergency relief should make the cut.

Second, as Matt Yglesias explained, Romney’s anti-FEMA approach would be awful for the economy.

Disaster relief, I would argue, is a great federal program precisely because of the debt issue.

If a storm damages basic physical infrastructure (power lines, bridges) and imperils human life it would be the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking to suppose that the afflicted area should wait months or years to repair the damage. Ultimately, anyplace is going to go back to robust wealth creation faster if basic stuff gets fixed up faster. But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects – i.e., the federal government. Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation.

Given this, as Sandy takes its toll, it’s worth remembering what may happen to FEMA early next year depending on the outcome of next week’s election.

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Mitt Romney and FEMA

The politics of FEMA's future

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