Hurricane Politics

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Hurricane Irene wreaked billions of dollars in damage, inundated cities and towns and killed at least 35. For hundreds of thousands more, it was either a life-changing calamity or a close call. But for politicians, it was also a chance to showcase leadership and promote their vision of government in a moment of peril. President Obama wants his Administration to represent competence and accountability after the flubs of the Bush years, so as Irene lingered menacingly off the Atlantic Coast Friday, he cut short his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and spent the weekend visiting FEMA, signing disaster declarations that unlock federal funds and assuring East Coast residents that he was taking every precaution. It was an opportunity to manage expectations, and to show that the federal government was working, the boss present and in charge.

For Ron Paul, the storm offered an opportunity to promote a starkly different vision of government. Paul wants to stop the boss to get out of the way, and Washington to stop sticking its nose in local matters — in this case, providing aid and assistance amid the devastation. FEMA–its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina still tattooed on the nation’s brain–is a handy vessel for the public’s frustrations. But the Texas Congressman also sees the agency as emblematic of a sprawling bureaucracy that fosters a culture of government dependency. “It’s a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a policy that is deeply flawed,” Paul said on Fox News Sunday. In Paul’s vision, there should be no national response to a natural disaster. “We should be like 1900; we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960,” he added on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, evoking a halcyon past before FEMA’s founding. “There’s no magic about FEMA. They’re a great contribution to deficit financing and quite frankly they don’t have a penny in the bank.”

Unlike Paul, Texas Governor Rick Perry has regularly sought federal disaster aid to help rebuilding efforts in his state, even sparring with Obama last spring over an unfulfilled request for firefighter funding after blazes scorched a vast swath of the state. So Perry couched his critique of the federal government’s response to Irene in the language of states’ rights, which resonates with his Tea Party base and has been a hallmark of his campaign so far. “We’ve seen FEMA not perform to the level, from time to time. They can be slow, they can be bureaucratic,” he said Saturday in Des Moines. “Listen, nobody knows better how to deal with the issues of preparations, search and rescue than the local governments.”

House Republicans reacted in kind as well. Appropriators sought appropriations; small-government proponents urged spending cuts. As the Washington Post reports:

On Saturday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) urged the Senate to quickly approve the House GOP version of the annual Homeland Security spending measure that includes $1 billion for additional disaster funding this year and $2.65 billion for fiscal 2012.

“Time and time again, the [Obama] administration has ignored the obvious funding needs of the Disaster Relief Fund, purposefully and irresponsibly underfunding the account and putting families and communities who have suffered from terrible disasters on the back burner,” Rogers said. “Now the administration has let the fund reach critically low levels, putting continued recovery at risk, without a plan for the future or a clear method for dealing with new disasters.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor–who has been at the forefront of the party’s push to cut government spending–called for federal disaster money to be offset by budget and program cuts, as he did after the Joplin tornado and the temblor that rattled his district last week. Democrats balked, suggesting that the issue is likely to revive the two parties’ budget battles when Congress reconvenes next month.  “It makes no sense to cut programs that help respond to future disasters in order to pay for emergencies that have already occurred,” Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said in a statement.

FEMA needs the money. Its cash reserves, depleted by a year marked by natural disasters, have plummeted to below $1 billion, and the agency said Monday that it would temporarily stop funneling funds to new, long-term rebuilding projects so that it could stem the short-term devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene. “We want to make sure that we can continue supporting the survivors for all the old disasters, as well as any new responses,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said during Monday’s White House press briefing. “Going into September, … the peak part of hurricane season, and with Irene, we didn’t want to get to the point where we would not have the funds to continue to support the previous impacted survivors as well as respond to the next disaster.”