Hurricane Sandy was a reminder of a few things: Americans are really pretty good about helping each other out in crises. The President is also pretty great at handling crises. We really need the federal government sometimes. Yes, the climate is changing (but more on that another day).
And all of these reminders have been pretty awkward for Mitt Romney. And Joe Deshotel has a great summary of the political impact in his post from earlier today. But let's focus in on the debate over the proper role of FEMA.
As with so many issues, Romney's position on FEMA has been an evolution:
- As governor of Massachusetts, Romney accepted FEMA money to help clean up after some severe storms.
- Before the Republican primaries, Romney suggested FEMA be privatized: “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.”
- As Republican presidential nominee, Romney dodged questions about FEMA for days after Sandy.
- And after observing the necessity and popularity of federal disaster relief efforts, Romney came out in support of FEMA – or at least giving it “the funding it needs to fulfill its mission.”
There are two ways to look at this. One is that Romney is unbelievably short-sighted for a presidential nominee. He thinks federal disaster relief is a good idea every time there's a disaster, but not in between – like someone who only considers health insurance after they get sick.
Or there's a more cynical explanation: he's interested in railing against spending (e.g. cutting FEMA's funding by 40 percent) when the debt is the enemy of the day and the skies are blue, but when people are stranded and homes and businesses are destroyed, he becomes mysteriously supportive of keeping FEMA adequately funded.
Both are scary propositions, and it's hard to know where he really stands. But we can generally assume that he still imagines a scaled back FEMA.
And imagining what a state-run or private FEMA would look like is both disturbing and puzzling. Especially since FEMA disaster relief efforts are already pretty localized. As the Washington Post points out, disaster relief efforts are basically locally run already:
“This is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.”
But let's imagine a world where FEMA is even more decentralized. Say, a world where each state decides how much it's going to pay into a disaster relief fund, and thus how much support is available during emergencies.
Rick Perry has taken a stand against the federal government (and the people of his own state) by refusing to accept federal dollars in areas like Medicaid, education and unemployment benefits. Does anyone believe for a moment that someone like Rick Perry would make sure Texas is well-prepared in an emergency?
Hurricane Sandy's damage is estimated to land somewhere between $30 – 50 billion. Hurricane Katrina cost $80 billion. For a frame of reference, Texas's state budget is about $180 billion – and we're in pretty good shape. Louisiana's state budget is about $25 billion, for instance. And if we didn't pay a high enough premium (and let's face it, when has Perry invested in anything preventative?), we'd be footing a big chunk of that share. We'd basically be bankrupt as soon as the first storm hits.
Or if disaster relief was truly privatized at the individual level, people who didn't pay into disaster insurance could end up with a $100,000 bill to keep their house from burning or crumbling. It's like the problem of emergency room visits for people who don't have health insurance – except multiplied by the costs of rebuilding infrastructure across a community.
As with all public goods, some states/individuals fare better and some fare worse. Most progressives agree that it's not fair that the zip code you're born in can determine whether you have access to health insurance or a good education. But when it comes down to providing blankets for flood victims and clearing the rubble from earthquakes, you would think even the staunchest conservative would agree that there are times it's reasonable for everyone to pay in. But in the Romney/Ryan world, you'd be wrong.