By most accounts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has done an excellent job in response to Hurricane Irene, even drawing praise from Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Chris Christie. Unfortunately, the agency may not be as well-equipped for the next natural disaster -- or even to finish the cleanup for this one.
FEMA, it turns out, is running out of money thanks to the huge expense of dealing with a string of devastating tornadoes in the South, including in Joplin, Missouri. And despite the new burdens imposed by Irene, Republicans in the House have been adamant that FEMA won't get additional funds unless cuts are made elsewhere in the budget.
This hard line comes from the same crew that happily approved billions of dollars in reconstruction costs for Iraq and Afghanistan without demanding either offsetting budget cuts or tax increases. But now, with millions of American homes without power, Eric Cantor and his colleagues, have decided to treat that FEMA is yet another bargaining chip, leveraged to force massive, dangerously regressive budget cuts. This callousness would be shocking, but for the fact that Cantor's willingness to take FEMA hostage is merely the latest chapter in an old story of Republican disregard for an agency that frequently serves as a crucial lifeline for disaster victims.
It didn't have to be this way. FEMA, founded in 1979 by President Carter, made disaster relief the burden of the federal government. By all accounts, the agency didn't have much muscle behind it until 1993, when President Clinton hired James Lee Witt -- a technocrat with emergency-management experience -- as commissioner. Under Clinton, the post was given a Cabinet rank.
Witt's tenure is uniformly considered to be the high point of the agency. Via Wikipedia:
Witt's term in office saw approximately 348 Presidentially declared disaster areas in more than 6,500 counties and in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. Witt supervised the response to the 1997 Red River Flood— a devastating flood in the Dakotas—the most costly earthquake, and a dozen serious hurricanes.
Under Michael Brown, FEMA was not just a horrific mess, it was a Reagan one-liner -- Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem -- as policy. (Adherence to this sort of thinking is why a every Republican candidate for President is on record rejecting a package of 10:1 budget cuts to tax increases.) And the policy of government-by-reduction didn't end with Katrina -- it accelerated.
Conservative thinkers such as the National Review's editor Rich Lowry used Brown's awful tenure to impugn the agency. "FEMA is a close cousin to your local DMV, which you would never want to trust with your life," he wrote in 2005.
This belief still holds sway in some corners of the Republican Party. As Hurricane Irene approached, Ron Paul, used the occasion to call for shuttering FEMA to help Americans “transition out of the dependency on the federal government." Still, Eric Cantor aside, even the no-government-at-any-cost party seems to recognize FEMA's virtues. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that Governor Rick Perry begged FEMA to assume greater responsibility fighting the forest fires ravaging Texas.
To be sure, FEMA has its share of problems. Like other government agencies, it doles out too many contracts to politically well-connected insiders and the agency can be cumbersome and inefficient. But the Obama Administration has been working hard to solve these problems for the past two years. Craig Fugate, Obama's pick to lead FEMA, is a seasoned disaster manager who served two Republican governors in Florida.
And that's the ironic thing here. Democrats are constantly accused of handing government a blank check when it is actually they who believe in government enough to try to fix it, imposing greater efficiencies and accountability.
Perhaps, from now on, a strengthened FEMA can become a non-partisan imperative? Because otherwise, the American people lose and the only winner is Grover Norquist.