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Defending Big Government, Badly

Bad weather is not an argument against the Tea Party.

1:25 PM, Aug 30, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Today, in the Post Dana Milbank makes a fairly bold assertion:

Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right.

Milbank is, of course, talking about how the the federal government's response to Hurricane Irene was a smashing success. The hurricane hit landfall just ten miles off from where NOAA had predicted, and Milbank notes that FEMA and NOAA both got "high marks" for their response to the hurricane.

So let me get this straight. 1) Everyone agrees that the hype surrounding the potential force of the hurricane was overblown (hey, as long as Milbank's throwing around bad puns, I might as well get in the ring) and 2) regardless of predicting where the storm landed, 40 people still died, making it the fourth deadliest storm in 30 years. I mean we're talking about the weather here here and how it affects people is generally beyond the realm of human institutions, so I don't think this necessarily proves the federal response was bad. But Milbank offers up very little evidence for how we determine that the federal government should get "high marks" in relation to what happened.

That's because Milbank doesn't really care about specifics here -- he's is really just launching a rhetorical attack on Tea Partiers and limited government types:

Such successes might provide an antidote to the souring of the public’s confidence in government. By coincidence, a Gallup poll released Monday showed that only 17 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, a new low.

More likely, however, Americans won’t have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way. ...

Tea Partyers who denounce Big Government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly they aren’t thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies.

Milbank goes on to assert that Tea Partiers want "a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good."Look let's get something straight: Tea Partiers are for limited government, not no government. I think most everyone agrees that there are few more justifiable exercises of federal power than dealing with a hurricane that basically threatens to wreak havoc on the entire East Coast.

But Tea Partiers don't want to cut the budgets of NOAA and FEMA because they believe that the government shouldn't have a role in responding to hurricanes. They want these budgets cut because they are rife with waste.

Maybe there's a better case to be made for protecting NOAA's budget, but the example of FEMA is certainly instructive. FEMA was originally created in 1979 to help rspond in the event of a nuclear attack. Like government agencies are wont to do, it's role kept expanding and expanding. According to a 1988 act of congress, requests for emergency declarations — and the resultant FEMA funds — should be based on a finding that events are “of such severity and magnatitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” But no one's ever specifically defined what those circumstances are.

Of course, it's always politically advantageous to hand out money, so now the federal government routinely pays up to 75 percent of the costs associated with routine snowstorms. (Last I checked, Buffalo, New York gets a truckload of FEMA money on a semi-regular basis because it snows in the snowbelt.) And remember how FEMA chipped in to help pay for the "emergency" of Obama's inauguration?

Because many cities and states are often insured against natural disasters, FEMA money allows them to actually profit off of disasters. FEMA pays for the damages while the pocket the insurance money, so states routinely pressure federal politicians for disaster declarations. During Clinton’s presidency a “major disaster” was declared on average once every week. George W. Bush, like Clinton, viewed FEMA appointments as matter of patronage until Katrina hit.

Is this really the status quo that Milbank wants to defend? Or was he so eager to make a rhetorical argument in defense of big government that he didn't bother actually seeing whether FEMA's budget and operating practices were worth defending? I'm going to go with the latter.

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