On FEMA's Present and Future

About a year ago, in the wake of Hurricane Irene, I noted that Republicans had gone to great lengths to hamstring the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency was running out of money, "thanks to the huge expense of dealing with a string of devastating tornadoes in the South, including in Joplin, Missouri." Worse:

[D]espite 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.

FEMA, despite these obstacles, performed well during Irene. It's certainly too early to tell if the agency has once again done right by the American people, but it has garnered unexpected praise from New Jersey's Chris Christie, whose state which ravaged, especially Atlantic City. He noted President Obama's response to the disaster and FEMA head Craig Fugate's as well. (Worth noting: Christie was also mildly effusive during Irene.)

So far Christie is an outlier. His brethren are not so enamored with the newly-flush agency, which, per the Wall Street Journal, has "placed about 400 power generators near critical infrastructure points like hospitals" and "positioned more than 600,000 liters of water and roughly 490,000 pre-packaged meals in the Northeast."

In a fit of astonishing hubris -- and lack of self-awareness -- Michael Brown, the pride of Hurricane Katrina, chastised the president for responding to the hurricane "too quickly." As for Mitt Romney: Mere days ago he confirmed a position he'd adopted during a primary debate -- that disaster relief ought to be taken out of the hands of the federal government. And today, as the full damage from Sandy has been thrown into sharp relief, he refuses even to discuss his plans for FEMA.

It's no mystery. FEMA was an embarrassment during George H.W. Bush's term, blindsided by Hurricane's Hugo and Andrew; was famously revitalized under Bill Clinton; and took a grotesque, lethal swan dive under George W. Bush. And so it goes. As historian Rick Perlstein observed five years ago, "you can chart FEMA health and effectiveness with a sine wave."

On President Romney's watch, that wave would almost certainly crash. If history is a guide, on an administrative level FEMA will be rendered ineffective. By design, it will be defunded and allowed to wither on the vine. In other words: Goodbye James Lee Witt, hello Michael Brown.