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

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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: 

"Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters."

Romney's statement was, without question, red meat for small government conservatives. But it was also extremely general, as was his followup. And both left enough wiggle room that he could easily claim that certain disaster relief functions, such as truly immense recovery efforts that require help from the military, can't be handed to the states, and so need to stay in the federal budget. 

That would be right in line with what conservatives have argued in the past. For instance, Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration official at the Department of Homeland Security, has written extensively for the Heritage Foundation on the need to cut FEMA's role in relatively routine disasters so that it can focus on handling true catastrophes. An example from 2010:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been responding to almost any natural disaster around the country, be it a contained three-county flood, or a catastrophe of near-epic proportions like Hurricane Katrina. As a result, many states and localities have trimmed their own emergency-response budgets, often leaving them ill prepared to handle even rain- or snowstorms without federal assistance. This leaves FEMA stretched far too thin and ill prepared to respond to grand-scale catastrophes. The "federalization of disasters" misdirects vital resources, leaving localities, states, and the federal government in a lose-lose situation. FEMA policies must be overhauled to let localities handle smaller, localized disasters, and to allow FEMA to respond fully and effectively when it is truly needed. If the status quo continues, it will be a disaster for everyone.

The reforms Mayer has suggested include eliminating certain kinds of disasters from FEMA's jurisdiction altogether, requiring the federal government to use more stringent and objective criteria before declaring a disaster, or requiring a certain dollar amount's worth of damage before the government steps in. 

This raises some questions: Do we really want to tie the federal government's hands with super stringent requirements for when it can and can't step in? And do we really trust disaster prone states like like Louisiana and Texas, which also hold low-taxes about as dear as they do college football, to spend properly to protect their citizens and critical economic infrastructure, like oil refineries? I'm not entirely sure I would. 

But the point remains that you can make a case for reducing Washington's role in handling floods and fires without suggesting states be left on their own to deal with the next Frankenstorm. Let's give Romney the benefit of the doubt on this one. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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