Sandy Cripples The East Coast

10.30.12

Hurricane Sandy Exposes Mitt Romney’s Self-Made FEMA Problem

Mitt Romney’s suggestion during the primary season that he might do away with FEMA has come back to haunt him in the wake of Sandy, writes John Avlon.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama has been coordinating storm response from the White House—while Mitt Romney has been dodging questions about what critics say was a primary campaign call to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At a campaign stop in Ohio that hastily was rechristened a Hurricane relief event but nonetheless began with a Romney bio video, the candidate didn’t respond to what the press pool report said were 14 questions about FEMA funding.

The controversy stems from a tortured answer Romney gave at one of the countless Republican primary debates—when he lumped FEMA into a federalist argument about devolving funding and power to the states, specifically with regard to disaster relief. “Absolutely,” he said when asked if he’d support shutting the agency down and having the states handle emergency relief.

"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.”

To be fair, it’s very unlikely Romney would defund FEMA as president. He was simply doing what he often does—pandering to a particular audience. As a rule, Republican candidates object to federal government power, while Republican presidents end up seeing its virtues when they are in control of it.

But speaking to Republican voters, Romney’s suggestion that disaster relief funding was part of the “immoral” growth of the deficit and debt illustrates a larger problem: the disproportionate influence that ideological activists have on our primaries at a time when the parties are so polarized. Practical considerations and common sense take a back seat to pandering to the cheap seats.

To be fair, it’s very unlikely Romney would defund FEMA as president.He was simply doing what he often does—pandering to a particular audience.

The response to Hurricane Sandy shows just why we have a federal government as a backstop, particularly when our country is facing a massive natural disaster that does not neatly correspond to state lines. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and Romney surrogate, was off-script but on-topic Tuesday morning when he told the Today show:

“The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally; he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area ... the president has been outstanding in this. The folks at FEMA, Craig Fugate, and his folks have been excellent.”

That’s the point of federal emergency management, and of a national government for that matter: to help states and citizens recover from disasters that they could not afford to rebuild from themselves. Putting ideology first is idiotic and impractical. 

The issue was gaining traction at a Union Hall in Canton, Ohio on Tuesday, when a Union Steelworkers leader named Leo Gerard slammed Romney’s comments to cheering workers at the Golden Lodge: “Ask him to go down there this afternoon and tell those people it’s immoral to have the government come help you when you’ve lost your business, you’ve lost your roads, you’ve lost your schools!”

Putting the heated spin aside, let’s look at how Republican budgets have been influenced by ideology. The Hill noted that Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, called for disaster relief funding to “be fully offset within the discretionary levels provided in this resolution.” That means that whenever a disaster occurred—and the federal government stepped into help—the cost of the response would need to be met with cuts in other nondefense discretionary budget items. To put that in perspective, even before Sandy is accounted for, the Obama administration has spent more than $5 billion in disaster assistance since 2009. Does anyone seriously find that “immoral”?

A second threat to FEMA has come from the “fiscal cliff” looming in 2013, when most of the post-2001 tax cuts will expire and automatic spending cuts to almost all programs—including FEMA—will be triggered if Congress can’t reach a more rational agreement before then. An Office of Management and Budget report on the impact of falling off that cliff states that “The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to respond to incidents of terrorism and other catastrophic events would be undermined.” 

The Obama administration does not want these sequestration cuts to occur, but the failure of congressional negotiators to come to agreement on a bipartisan measure— and the mechanism for automatic cuts if a deal isn’t reached that congressional Republican leaders insisted on—has compounded the fiscal cliff and now threatens to impact disaster relief.

This should be something we can all agree upon. Disaster relief is an essential role of the federal government. Getting these practicalities wrapped up in ideological debates is irresponsible and reflects the way party activists have become isolated from the realities of governing. And Republican budget plans have real-world implications that won’t pass the common-sense test for the vast majority of citizens.

It exposes the absurdity of the ideological straight-jacket that candidates like Mitt Romney put themselves in when they pander to the ideologues within their party during the primary season, whether they actually mean to implement their ideas or not.