The disaster of GOP disaster politics

In the wake of storms and quakes, some major Republicans run out their disastrous ideas. Ron Paul wants to abolish FEMA. Eric Cantor wants to hold funding hostage to budget cuts.

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

In the wake of storms and quakes, some major Republicans run out their disastrous ideas. Ron Paul wants to abolish FEMA. Eric Cantor wants to hold funding hostage to budget cuts.

The end of August has been a disaster for some people on the East Coast. They're called Republican politicians. And they are victims of having their ideological consistency revealed for what it is: retrograde thinking that is far, far out of the mainstream. None dare call it compassionate conservatism.

The East has seen a major hurricane and unusual earthquake all in one week. But the biggest cracks (or is it crackpots?) in the system are some leading Republicans who are espousing disaster assistance policies that are shocking, but completely consistent with the way the GOP has been handling things in Congress: demanding cuts, holding hostages, wanting to turn back the clock to the halcyon days before regulation.

Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, once of the most obstructionist members of the GOP congressional leadership, has long been for holding disaster victims hostage to the federal budget. Earlier this year, Cantor, who was chosen by his fellow GOP congressional members as the House majority leader, proposed withholding automatic aid for Joplin, Missouri, tornado victims until off-setting cuts could be found in the federal budget. In other words, we'll pull you out of the wreckage once we've agreed who's gonna pay for it with program cuts. I don't think anyone in their right mind would want Eric Cantor on the other end of their 911 call. "I'll send an ambulance as soon as the city council votes on how we're going to pay for it!"

Cantor was at it again this week in the wake of the quake that hit his district, among others. Though, because it was close to home, he softened his stance slightly, as The Washington Monthly reported on its Web site:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday that he intends to look for offsets if federal aid is needed to help areas of his Virginia district that were damaged in an earthquake Tuesday.

“There is an appropriate federal role in incidents like this,” the Republican said after touring the damage in his district. “Obviously, the problem is that people in Virginia don’t have earthquake insurance.”

The next step will be for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to decide whether to make an appeal for federal aid, Cantor said. The House Majority Leader would support such an effort but would look to offset the cost elsewhere in the federal budget.
“All of us know that the federal government is busy spending money it doesn’t have,” Cantor said in Culpeper, where the quake damaged some buildings along a busy shopping thoroughfare.

Okay, let's unpack this a bit. The aid comes first and the cuts later when it's in Cantor's district. Second, "the problem is that people in Virginia don’t have earthquake insurance.” I assume he means that the Feds should step in to help cover uninsured property damage. So, when it's his constituents, apparently the government does have a role to play in helping people without insurance. You think Cantor will extend that thought to healthcare reform? Don't hold your breath. But at least he acknowledges a federal role for it in some cases, close to home.

The federal assistance Cantor wants to draw on is exactly the kind that is in budgetary jeopardy coming from that small slice of the federal budget that is cuttable after the sacred cows are largely preserved (tax breaks for corporations, tax cuts for millionaires, etc.). You wouldn't want any of these things sacrificed in a disaster, would you?

While Cantor's view of disaster aid, limited as it is, is pretty cold, it is positively humane compared with contending presidential candidate Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul's idea.  On the eve of hurricane Irene, Paul called for abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Paul is absolutely frank about wanting to turn back the clock to a simpler time:

"We should be like 1900; we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960," Paul said. "I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district.

"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. We should be coordinated but coordinated voluntarily with the states," Paul told NBC News. "A state can decide. We don't need somebody in Washington."

Paul, a government minimalist, gets points for honesty and consistency. He believes in an every-man-for-himself society, and is honest about how retrograde that is. Paul notes, for example, that Galveston, Texas, is in his district, site of the most deadly hurricane disaster in the US of all time, is the 1900 utopia he imagines. Thousands killed, a city destroyed. In the aftermath, a telegram was sent to President William McKinley: "I have been deputized by the mayor and Citizen's Committee of Galveston to inform you that the city of Galveston is in ruins." And while the city has rebuilt, historians say that what could have been one of the most important port cities in America was set back more than a century by the Great Storm. Some argue that it is a city that has never recovered.

The politics of botched disaster preparedness and assistance for Katrina, and the destruction of New Orleans, was a national scandal. But Paul believes we ought to leave it to the locals to dig themselves out as they did in devastated Galveston. Instead of a national tragedy he see it as a chance for the invisible hand of the free market set things right. On Fox News, Paul said that FEMA aid has helped to "ruin the economy" of the Gulf Coast by creating an economic dependency. Does he really think that doing less is humane, let alone politically tenable?

The strange thing is, FEMA operates under pretty conservative principles already. It is authorized under the Stafford Act, crafted by a Vermont Republican. It essentially gives FEMA the power to coordinate federal disaster assistance, which can come from an alphabet-soup of existing agencies, from the Forest Service to the Small Business Administration. FEMA cannot prevent disasters except by educating the public on what to do if a) you see one coming, like a flood or hurricane, or b) what to do for yourself and your family if one hits, including unforeseen ones like quakes or even terror attacks. 

The whole ethic of FEMA puts responsibility on individuals and communities to be prepared and behave responsibly, and assistance arrives through local channels. In huge disasters, people will have to do a lot of shifting for themselves in any case. Outside writer Bruce Barcott gives a picture of what might happen when The Big One hits the Pacific Northwest Coast some day. Even with FEMA, victims and volunteers will have to be largely self-reliant. FEMA and everyone else is counting on it.

FEMA is also not in the business of "making people whole" after a disaster, but in getting assistance to folks so they can get back on their feet: temporary shelter and food, small business loans, grants for public infrastructure repair. The onus already is on locals, but federal disaster relief is also premised on the fact that it is both humane and a public  and economic benefit to help people in crisis so they can rebuild as soon as possible.

FEMA is also not the agency of first resort. An emergency can be declared in advance of a hurricane, and a disaster declared after it strikes. But this is in response to local requests by a state's governor when he or she determines that local resources will be overwhelmed by the scale of the emergency. And official disaster designations specify each county. Local governments and systems are generally key to funneling federal help where it's needed. 

FEMA evaluates these requests and the president is under no legal obligation to grant them. Were Ron Paul president, for example, he could simply turn down every request that crossed his desk. It is true that this can be political: some have criticized governors and Congress with being too quick to grant aid to marginal "disasters" like seasonal floods. Still, the biggest controversies in the past have usually come from FEMA doing too little or acting too slowly, not from doing too much to help.

It's entirely fair to look at the record and argue about whether disaster funding is too political, or whether FEMA has been competent, or disagree about flood insurance policies. But Paul's notion of abolishing the agency that is most effective in responding to inevitable domestic crises shows that he wants to be at the front of the line as the one to drown the government baby in the bathtub (almost literally, as most of Galveston's victims died in the storm surge). At root, he believes we have no common interests with our fellow Americans save private economic relationships. Each state, each locality is an island in the storm, and should remain that way.

The far right has had its beefs with FEMA for years (I was a part of FEMA's disaster reserve cadre 10 years ago). FEMA was feared for its "black helicopters" by conspiracy nuts. I remember one FEMA employee warned me not to wear the blue jacket with the yellow FEMA letters on the back in Montana because one might become a target. FEMA was also accused of stockpiling food for Y2K, apparently so government fat cats could eat well during the apocalypse. Paul's call will be welcome on the fringe of the fringe. But as Paul moves from winger-libertarian candidate to GOP semi-contender, it's important that his extreme views on this stuff get a better airing. The fact is, most state and local officials appreciate the help they get.

Abolishing FEMA would be a disaster. Withholding aid is cruel. Taking funding hostage for other cuts is reprehensible. Slowing down recovery from natural disasters or terror attacks (FEMA responded to the manmade disasters of the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11) also hurts the economy. Once upon a time, the Cantor and Paul notions were very far out of the mainstream, and they still are. But the fact they are embraced by key GOP politicians should ring alarm bells.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.