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Axe FEMA, Romney Says – as Hurricane Sandy Looms

And it’s just a small step from leaving disaster relief up to the states to privatizing it.

Hurricane Sandy threatens to be one of the most devastating storms ever to strike the United States. But if Mitt Romney were president, disaster relief would be up to the states.

Stands behind “disband FEMA” comment

The Romney campaign said early Monday morning that Romney stood behind a statement first made during a 2011 Republican debate, in which Romney said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be disbanded, and its powers either privatized or given to the states.

“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,” said Romney in 2011. Asked by debate moderator John King if that included cutting disaster relief, Romney said, “We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.”

Given the chance to back away from the statement, the Romney campaign instead told the Huffington Post that Romney meant what he said.

“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,” the campaign said.

Sandy Could Impact Fourteen States

Romney’s paean to states’ rights ignores the very important role of FEMA in coordinating disaster relief in events that transcend state boundaries. Hurricane Sandy is expected to impact fourteen states and the District of Columbia; its impact stretches from Maine to North Carolina, and from West Virginia to Massachusetts.

Furthermore, FEMA manages disasters on scales beyond the capacity of states to manage them. Hurricane Katrina did over $100 billion in damage to Louisiana in 2005. The entire annual budget for the state is about $25 billion. Simply, states that are hit by devastating natural disasters are usually in no position to manage the crisis by themselves.

As for Romney’s suggestion that disaster relief could be privatized, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a way that would be possible. Disasters generally require a huge outlay of funds to help wounded communities get back on their feet. Some of that is covered by private insurance, but much of it is not — especially the immediate response to the crisis.

Republicans Have Targeted Disaster Aid Before

It’s not surprising that Romney has opposed federal spending on disaster aid. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has proposed a budget that would require drastic cuts to federal aid programs, including FEMA.

Ryan is not alone. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., initially argued that disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Irene should be offset by spending cuts, though he was later forced to walk that back after public outrage. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has also called for the elimination of FEMA.

The targeting of disaster aid is part and parcel of the current Republican mentality. More and more, the Republican party is pushing a worldview that says, in effect, that we’re all on our own. In times of crisis, if you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps then you’ll just have to stay down on the ground.

FEMA has an imperfect track record, of course — its response to Hurricane Katrina was woefully inadequate. That error, though, was not one of doing too much, but doing too little. Under the Obama administration, FEMA has generally earned plaudits, especially for its response to an outbreak of tornadoes in the south and midwest. When supported adequately, FEMA has been a vital and valuable agency that has provided aid to states in the wake of disasters across the country.

In many ways, Mitt Romney’s opposition to federal disaster relief programs is what the election is about. President Barack Obama supports using government to help those in a crisis get back on their feet. Mitt Romney believes that government has no role in helping people who are dealing with disaster. Those two very different views of America’s future are on the ballot next week.

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