As people in New York were suffering and hospitals were being evacuated, the New York Times editorial page seized the occasion to score political points: “Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of ‘big government,’ which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it.” This was dishonest partisan spin. In a GOP primary debate last year, Romney had been asked by CNN’s John King about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and whether the “states should take on more of this role.” Romney replied, “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.”
The idea that anyone on the political spectrum this side of a doctrinaire libertarian believes the federal government has no role in coordinating disaster relief is a fantasy of the Times. Conservatives believe in a strong but limited central government, not no federal government. If there’s anything that would pass a conservative litmus test for the legitimate exercise of federal power, coordinating the response to a super-storm that wreaks havoc across the Eastern seaboard has to be near the top of the list.
As for the contention that some of FEMA’s responsibilities should be returned to the states, anyone who believes this to be a radical notion knows nothing about the history of FEMA. Created in 1979, FEMA was originally intended to help citizens in the event of a nuclear attack. In 1988, the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act clarified that federal emergency declarations—and the FEMA money accompanying such requests—should be based on a finding that events are “of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” Since then, Congress has never given specific guidance for what qualifies as a federal emergency.
For all the Bill Clinton nostalgia this election season, discussing FEMA is a sobering reminder that one of his real gifts was convincing people he was a good president rather than being one. As chronicled in Feeling Your Pain, James Bovard’s book on federal bureaucracy in the Clinton years, the former president exploited FEMA’s lack of a clear mission to transform the agency into a vehicle for patronage and pork. Clinton ballooned the agency to the point where it had 10 times as many political appointees as comparable federal agencies. (Clinton even appointed former Arkansas state trooper Raymond “Buddy” Young southwest regional FEMA director; Young would later be deposed in the Paula Jones lawsuit.) By the end of his presidency, Clinton was declaring a federal disaster somewhere in the country every week on average. Naturally, this resulted in defining disaster relief down. Following a California earthquake in 1994, FEMA sent out 47,000 -unsolicited checks—a total of $142 million—to homeowners for no other reason than they lived in supposedly affected ZIP codes.
Bush and Obama did little if anything to rein in FEMA. Last year, over 200 disaster declarations were made. Some FEMA emergencies, such as the response to Hurricane Sandy, are clearly warranted, but the vast majority are pork dressed up as compassion. States and municipalities have powerful incentives to beg for FEMA money at every opportunity—they let Uncle Sam pick up the tab and profit off of eventual insurance settlements. FEMA now routinely pays for costs associated with snow removal, even in places such as upstate New York, where these “disasters” are anticipated every winter. If you want a really pungent metaphor for how far afield the agency has strayed, President George W. Bush in early 2009 had his successor’s inauguration declared an emergency, thereby allowing FEMA funds to help cover the costs of the festivities to local governments. You might say he presciently anticipated the catastrophe Barack Obama’s presidency would become.
Despite the media’s effort to make FEMA’s budget a sacred cow, reining in the agency is long overdue. Should Romney become president, the backbone he displayed in standing by his FEMA comments last week bodes well for his commitment to restoring fiscal sanity. Should Romney lose, last week’s unwarranted defense of FEMA suggests the media will continue to aid and abet President Obama’s ongoing fiscal calamity by refusing to have an honest debate about the size and scope of the federal government.