C’mon Mitt, Privatizing Disaster Relief Would be a Disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with the upcoming election a factor, one thing is apparent and that is that Mitt Romney is no better off at figuring out disaster relief than he was at figuring out who constitutes our geopolitical enemies. You see Romney is busy backpedaling on his earlier comments about shutting down FEMA.

Let’s look at those prior statements that are now causing Romney such headaches: “During a CNN debate at the height of the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked, in the context of the Joplin disaster and FEMA’s cash crunch, whether the agency should be shuttered so that states can individually take over responsibility for disaster response.”Absolutely,” he said. “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. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?” Now let’s contrast Romney’s statements, made during the primaries when he was pandering to the far right of the Republican Party with the situation now: “Mitt Romney repeatedly ignored questions about his position on federal funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at an event for storm victims Tuesday…“Governor, you’ve been asked 14 times. Why are you refusing to answer the question?” one [reporter] asked.” Not surprisingly aides to Governor Romney insisted that he would not abolish FEMA. If you look at the statements made by Romney aides it’s apparent that the campaign is attempting to spin its way out of suggestions that FEMA should be eliminated: “Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.” Well it looks like one thing for sure, the word “absolutely” no longer has a fixed meaning in the lexicon of the Romney political play book.


Okay Romney’s original statements are full of stock conservative talking points which he relied on so heavily during the primaries, but do they make any sense when the facts of national disasters are taken into account? Emphatically not. Federal disaster aid, no matter how many problems we’ve encountered with it, still represents a better model for dealing with widespread disasters. Why, because it allows for an aggregation of resources and funding that no individual state can achieve on its own. Consider the states of Mississippi and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they couldn’t possibly have been able to marshal the resources and the funding required to deal with the response let alone the rebuilding. Here’s just one example, the 2012 budget for the State of Louisiana is $25.5 billion and that figure was still the subject of possible further spending cuts to the tune of $303.7 million. Now the rebuilding of the flood control system around New Orleans came with a price tag of $14.5 billion which represents 57 percent of the total state budget. Is it likely that Louisiana’s Governor would have allocated more than half his budget to one disaster abatement project? The answer is of course not and this is the type of example that makes Romney’s idea that federal disaster relief can be eliminated just so much farce and folly. Moreover, the idea that private disaster measures can do what state and federal efforts do is just plain wrongheaded. We already have an empirical example of the failure of private charity to address widespread disaster and that came at the onset of the Great Depression when private efforts were swamped by a unprecedented crisis. Thus we need not reinvent the wheel here so as to prove once again that Romney’s original approach is a losing proposition. Needless to say, Romney’s relief road show in Ohio and his comments that people should donate to private charities have both political and ideological overtones which can’t be denied.

Are there serious flaws in federal disaster relief, yes. Does that mean we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, of course not and only a conservative ideologue with a lack of practical or historical perspective would suggest such an idea. Why conservatives continue to harken back nostalgically to past programs and approaches that have failed isn’t a mystery to me. It is indicative of a movement that is ideologically exhausted and that is busy pedaling old wine in new bottles for want of new and engaging ideas. I always find it ironic, if not amusing, when conservative governors carry on about trimming the federal government and slashing taxes but then look to that same government when disaster strikes, seeking the relief that their very ideas have put in jeopardy in the first place. It’s more than a bit ironic that Barack Obama’s constant critic, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has been praising federal efforts post Hurricane Sandy, the president in particular, while at the same time saying that he cares not if Mitt Romney visits the Garden State.

The solution to problems with federal disaster relief isn’t to be found in Mitt Romney’s original statements, his new spin or among the thoughts of conservative extremists. Instead we need to apply to FEMA the same rigor and discipline that presently exists in small and efficient federal organizations, such as the Marine Corps, Coast Guard or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Fire Management Branch. We have existing models that provide transferable templates for reform and as such there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to federal disaster assistance. As is the case in assessing what we can expect from a Romney presidency in the realm of disaster response the same questions come to the fore as have those in other policy areas, which version of “multiple choice Mitt” will we get if we elect him in November? For this writer, however, when it comes to this topic my response is the same as that given by Colin Powell when he commented on Romney’s approach to foreign policy: C’mon Mitt, think!

Steven J. Gulitti

10/31/2012





Sources:


Mitt Romney In GOP Debate: Shut Down Federal Disaster Agency, Send Responsibility To The States; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/28/mitt-romney-fema_n_2036198.html

Romney ignores questions about eliminating FEMA; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/30/romney-ignores-questions-about-eliminating-fema/

Romney Denies He Would Eliminate FEMA; http://www.newsmax.com/US/romney-fema-hurricane-sandy/2012/10/29/id/461931

Gov. Bobby Jindal aims to cut Louisiana state budget into shape; http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/04/gov_bobby_jindal_aims_to_cut_l.html

Vast Defenses Now Shielding New Orleans; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/15/us/vast-defenses-now-shielding-new-orleans.html?pagewanted=all



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  1. NYT: Charity’s Role in America, and Its Limits

    A good follow-on piece:

    Charity’s Role in America, and Its Limits
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/business/charitys-role-in-america-and-its-limits.html?pagewanted=all

    To wit: “Looming cuts to federal programs and shrinking state budgets mean that charity will have a bigger void to fill. But one of the things that induces people to give to these causes is a break on their taxes. It is legitimate to ask whether a government pressed for money should be forgoing $40 billion a year in tax breaks mostly pocketed by the rich for their charitable donations…For all the trust we put in big philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad deploying vast resources for the public good, private charitable contributions have been stuck around 2 percent of personal income for years, according to the Center on Philanthropy. Corporate donations have never increased much above 1 percent of pretax profits…The nation’s philanthropists tend to prefer charity to taxes because they get to decide which cause is worthy. The flip side is that philanthropy is pretty much unaccountable to society. Unfettered by democratic controls and dictated by the preferences of donors, it doesn’t have a great track record of devoting itself to our most pressing social needs.”

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