How has FEMA fared under the two political parties?
Rich Gardner | 10.31.2012
I mentioned politics to a co-worker the other day and she raised her eyes to the ceiling and said "I am SO looking forward to this campaign being over," so I understand if some people have long since made up their minds and are eagerly anticipating the campaign's end, when they can then turn their attention back to other subjects. But I feel that Hurricane Sandy and how it was handled provides a very sharp, stark contrast between the parties. Basically, Democrats support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Republicans don't. Update: Romey responds to reporter's questions, but leaves a great many questions unanswered. Update: The Occupy Movement is taking donations as Occupy Sandy for New York City and region.
Given Republicans’ recent insistence that new disaster funding be offset by spending cuts, there’s reason to worry. Last year, after devastating tornadoes and an unexpected earthquake, and with Hurricane Irene bearing down on the East Coast, FEMA was basically out of money. It had just a few hundred million left and was forced to start triaging its projects as it waited on Congress to send more money.
But instead of acting quickly to approve the funds, congressional Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, took a principled stand against disaster funding, saying it was more important to prevent the deficit from growing than to supply the needed money.
Very clearly, FEMA is, to Republicans, an expendable agency when it comes to saving money and paring down the deficit. Republicans regard paper savings (No, the deficit is not very meaningful) as more important than saving lives and rebuilding infrastructure.
The piece that contains this following paragraph also includes a video of Republicans badmouthing the agency:
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) notoriously said
federal disaster aid should be met with budget cuts, while presidential nominee Mitt Romney appeared to suggest
during a debate in June that FEMA should be shuttered in favor of individual states taking on disaster relief management.
Is FEMA doomed to be an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy? Hardly, as is pointed out here, how efficient and effective FEMA is depends entirely on what party the President is from. Under the last two Republican presidents, FEMA was treated as a patronage dumping ground for political campaign operatives.
Under the elder George Bush, in 1992 in response to Hurricane Andrew:
Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency. Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. "They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis.... They were terribly inexperienced."
FEMA would have seen as much--had it bothered to look. Because of its reactive posture, it had never sent a team of damage assessors to survey the wreckage. Not until Card and the task force flew to Florida did the federal government have a true sense of the storm's impact.
After Clinton came into office:
One year earlier, Gordon would have mailed federal relief request forms to Washington, where, as Puerto Rico's Governor Hernandez-Colon discovered, they may have received a less-than-speedy response. But all Gordon had to do was place a phone call to the FEMA disaster field office located in Davenport. Early Sunday morning, FEMA officials arrived in Des Moines, and, by 11:30 a.m., they had determined a plan of action. By that evening, 29 water distribution centers had been established. The next morning, the first of 30 self-contained water purification machines arrived. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Des Moines Water Works was inoperable, but the city had all the water it needed. "Nothing sticks out in our minds that we had to haggle over or justify," says Gordon. "Whenever we asked for assistance it was there."
Did FEMA remain competent under the younger George Bush? 'Fraid not.
The sprawling and dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security, carelessly thrown together by the Bush administration in in 2002 for purely partisan purposes and a by-word for ineffectiveness and incompetence ever since, should have spent the last few years planning and preparing for an urban catastrophe like the one that just hit New Orleans. What if terrorists had blown a hole in the levees rather than Hurricane Katrina? It seems clear that they had their minds on other things, whatever those were.
Another question is: How is Mitt Romney's proposal to decentralize FEMA and to move some disaster-relief functions to the states likely to work? Not well. This was written shortly after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans:
Bill Clinton’s FEMA director, thinks that FEMA’s current flaws are all too understandable — and are a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s decision to pull the federal government out of the natural disaster-relief business and turn over more power to state and local officials.
The Bush administration’s distance from local disaster-relief officials is by design. From the moment Bush stepped into office, he’s been determined to move away from the coordinated state/local/federal disaster-relief approach used by Clinton. Instead, as Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA dirctor, told a congressional panel in 2001, Bush wanted to pull the federal government out of the disaster-relief business and aimed to “restore the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters.”
In other words, Romney is determined to conduct a "Third term of Bush," an accusation levelled at John McCain in 2008. Romney wants to repeat the failed policy ideas that Bush pursued. He wants distance between FEMA and his administration and Clinton and Obama have both shown that FEMA works best when it's treated as an important agency.
What's the distinction between Grover Norquist and President Obama? Note in this piece that Norquist never refers to the purpose of taxes. Taxes, to Norquist are simply too high. Period. End of subject. When CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out that the US cannot both lower taxes and maintain services,
Norquist ignored Zakaria and called on Congress to reduce the capital gains tax, corporate and individual rates, insisting that the policies will lead to the kind of economic growth that will off-set lost revenue.
In other words, the younger George Bush's fairy dust and magic asterisk solutions to whatever ails you. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts led to the slowest and most sluggish recovery since the US began keeping records back in the 1940s. Norquist's "solution" is precisely the same thing that G.W. Bush tried. Why are Norquist's views important? "...the anti-tax zealot’s opposition to higher taxes — gospel which the GOP has adopted —..." Norquist has held Republicans Senators and Representatives to his "pledge" and that pledge has stuck. Keeping that pledge requires keeping FEMA as a non-powerful agency that can't do anything right. Republicans would be perfectly happy to return FEMA to being a patronage dumping ground.
The choice seems really clear. If you want an agency that's prepared to handle disasters, you want to vote for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. If you're perfectly happy with an incompetent agency that failed to understand how devastating Hurricane Andrew was and that failed to respond to the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, then vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.