No, Mitt Romney Doesn't Really Want to Kill Off FEMA

During one of last year's Republican primary debates, Mitt Romney made it crystal clear that he would like to shrink the federal government's role in responding to natural disasters and give more of that responsibility to the states. With Hurricane Sandy bearing on the eastern seaboard a week before the election, this is proving to be a very inconvenient position -- and has some left leaning writers suggesting he'd nix the Federal Emergency Management Agency altogether.  

"Many things that Romney said back during his severely conservative period I have little doubt are what he really believes," Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall wrote. "This one though is so nonsensical that I'd chalk it up more to his penchant for pandering and lack of character."

That's one way to look at it. But if you interpret his comments a bit more charitably, they're not necessarily as severe or nonsensical as some are making them out to be. 

First, here's the clip and a transcript of the full exchange with the debate's moderator, CNN's John King. King asks whether, in light of FEMA's serious budget problems, "the states should take on more" of a role in handling disaster relief. Romney says "absolutely," before launching into a jeremiad on the evils of federal spending: 

KING: What else, Governor Romney? You've been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Missouri. I've been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with whether it's the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?

ROMNEY: Absolutely. 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 ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in. We cannot...

KING: Including disaster relief, though?

ROMNEY: We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all.

Last night, Romney's campaign sent out a vague note to the press, ostensibly to explain his position: 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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