There are some things in politics that are as predictable as the changing seasons. When there is a high-profile act of violence involving a firearm, the ghouls at the Brady Center and their allies issue press releases while the blood is still hot on the ground, blaming the crime on the failure of Congress to comply with their policy preferences. When there is a natural disaster, Democrats are front and center, before the flood waters even have crested, with reminders that Republicans — wicked, evil Republicans — would cut FEMA funding if left to their own devices.
The storm is coming. But Matt Yglesias is coming first: “Romney wants to cut FEMA.”
Romney did not present disaster relief vs. deficit reduction as an either/or proposition. Like most Republicans, he has argued that we might have more effective disaster relief if we moved some larger part of the responsibility to the state and local levels, and into the private sector. To put the issue in a less boneheadedly simplistic fashion, the question is not whether we: A. spend money on disaster relief or B. reduce the deficit. Rather, the questions are: Given our tenuous fiscal position, is it possible that we are spending too much money on FEMA and related programs? Is that spending maximally effective? Might we be better off decentralizing these efforts?
Whenever there’s a major natural disaster, the federal government steps in to help. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if Mitt Romney got his way. During a 2011 GOP primary debate he said it was “immoral” for the federal government to be spending money on disaster relief when it should be focused on deficit reduction.
. . . If a storm damages basic physical infrastructure (power lines, bridges) and imperils human life it would be the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking to suppose that the afflicted area should wait months or years to repair the damage. Ultimately, anyplace is going to go back to robust wealth creation faster if basic stuff gets fixed up faster. But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects — i .e., the federal government. Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation.
Yglesias, like many of his like-minded compatriots, presents these arguments as though they were all-or-nothing propositions. This is strange, inasmuch as they pretty clearly recognize the merits of such inquiry when coming from their own side: There are many people who believe that we spend far too much money on national security (I am among them), but only the most gap-toothed among us equate asking uncomfortable questions about military-spending priorities with abandoning national security categorically. Sometimes it makes sense to ask whether the federal government should be doing this at all. Very often it makes sense to ask, as one expects a Romney administration would, whether the federal government is going about this the right way.
On the narrow question of FEMA, the answer is probably no. Like many otherwise worthwhile federal endeavors, including those that happen inside that famous five-sided building in Washington, FEMA has managed over the years to waste truly shocking amounts of money, e.g. spending $416,000 per capita to temporarily house people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, spending nearly $1 billion on manufactured homes that FEMA’s own regulations rendered unusable in many situations, etc. We all remember those $2,000 debit cards that were handed out like Christmas candy. In much the same way that some conservatives are more skeptical about foreign military actions when there is a Democratic president, liberals are better at recognizing government waste when there is a Republican president.
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