The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Yuval Levin and Jonathan Bernstein on the BP Oil Spill


Yuval Levin writes on unreasonable expectations of government at The Corner, and Jonathan Bernstein writes a very thoughtful reply.

As a side note, Kevin Drum writes the following:

Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore. [Emphasis added.]

Much depends on whether it is actually true that “Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling.” But this isn’t quite right. FEMA does indeed exist to assist state and local officials in a disaster. But to do its job well, it needs to work hand in glove with competent and effective state and local officials. The federal government can’t just take the reins. Under the Stafford Act, state governors have a great deal of authority over how a crisis is handled. In essence, the role of the feds is to provide any assistance requested by state and local officials. Gov. Kathleen Blanco resisted intense pressure from the White House to federalize the response effort. The following is from a December 2005 report in the Washington Post

Shortly after noon on Aug. 31, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) delivered a message that stunned aides to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who were frantically managing the catastrophe that began two days earlier when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

White House senior adviser Karl Rove wanted it conveyed that he understood that Blanco was requesting that President Bush federalize the evacuation of New Orleans. The governor should explore legal options to impose martial law “or as close as we can get,” Vitter quoted Rove as saying, according to handwritten notes by Terry Ryder, Blanco’s executive counsel.

Thus began what one aide called a “full-court press” to compel the first-term governor to yield control of her state National Guard — a legal, political and personal campaign by White House staff that failed three days later when Blanco rejected the administration’s terms, 10 minutes before Bush was to announce them in a Rose Garden news conference, the governor’s aides said.

Blanco’s intransigence may have caused untold damage, given the manifest inadequacies of Louisiana’s state and local governments.

I am entirely willing to believe that President Bush managed FEMA poorly, and that Joe Allbaugh wasn’t fit for the job, as the 2004 Jon Elliston article Kevin Drum links to suggests. But surely the competence and effectiveness of the state government matters. Did FEMA have great success in combating disasters in Louisiana of Katrina scale throughout the 1990s?

Fundamentally, I think Yuval is right: we ask too much of our federal government. This is one reason why I’m a defender of bureaucracies like the IRS and FEMA that do difficult, thankless jobs. We ought to fund these agencies well and give them the tools and the authority they need to fulfill their responsibilities. But we should also know our limits. Given the size of the existing spending burden, the federal government would do well to sharpen its focus on its core competencies. 


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