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'Would you eliminate FEMA' is not a trick question

Romney at an Ohio photo-op this afternoon, where he ignored FEMA questions.
Romney at an Ohio photo-op this afternoon, where he ignored FEMA questions.

Between Hurricane Sandy, the presidential election, and Mitt Romney's 2011 talk about FEMA's future -- he wants to turn it over to states and the private sector -- it's not surprising that the reporters covering the Republican's campaign events today would ask Romney about his position on the federal agency overseeing disaster response.

As of a few hours ago, the candidate didn't want to talk about it.

Mitt Romney refused to answer reporters' questions about how he would handle the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), after a Tuesday "storm relief" event in Ohio for Hurricane Sandy.

According to the pool report, Romney was asked at least five times whether he intended to eliminate FEMA if elected. He heard the questions, and very easily could have said "of course not," but instead Romney simply ignored the reporters who asked.

It's not a trick question. The fact that the former governor, who has an unfortunate record when it came to natural disasters in Massachusetts, is so reluctant to talk about this isn't encouraging.

What's more, a Romney campaign spokesperson sketched out the candidate's apparent vision of how FEMA should function and be organized, apparently unaware of the fact that FEMA is already functioning and organized that way.

As for the bigger picture -- whether there's anything inappropriate about scrutinizing Romney's position on FEMA during an unfolding natural disaster -- there's a compelling case that this is the ideal time.

I can appreciate the initial hesitancy. This is a brutal and deadly hurricane, and the storm is still, as I type, slamming American communities. Politics is not the first order of business.

That said, Jon Chait makes a persuasive case that discussions over these issues during "moments of normality" simply don't occur, and it's too important to let the issues go by without scrutiny.

Funding for FEMA is something the parties wrangle over, with Republicans pushing to limit the agency's budget, and Democrats pushing back. FEMA has to fight for its share of a constricted pot of money for domestic non-entitlement spending, a pot of money that the Republicans propose to radically constrict. How radically? Romney's budget promises require shrinking domestic non-entitlement spending as a share of the economy by about two-thirds. [...][I]t is true that Republicans have no special animus against disaster response. They oppose domestic spending in general, and programs that either impinge upon business or redistribute income from rich to poor in particular. But the most concrete statement of Romney's view of disaster spending came in a Republican debate last summer. John King, the moderator, asked Romney whether FEMA needed to be devolved to the states. Romney agreed and went farther:As he has on so many issues, Romney avoided any specific programmatic commitment here. But the clear point he conveyed was that he would not exempt FEMA from his general opposition to federal spending. The question was whether FEMA falls into the category of spending that Romney wants to return to the states, and his response was entirely in the affirmative.

Here, again, is the video Chait is referencing.

If this doesn't get scrutiny now, when will it? If we don't discuss the importance of FEMA and a forceful federal capacity to respond to disasters, when will that discussion happen?