There are some things in politics that are as predictable as the changing seasons. When there is a high-profile act of violence involving a firearm, the ghouls at the Brady Center and their allies issue press releases while the blood is still hot on the ground, blaming the crime on the failure of Congress to comply with their policy preferences. When there is a natural disaster, Democrats are front and center, before the flood waters even have crested, with reminders that Republicans — wicked, evil Republicans — would cut FEMA funding if left to their own devices.
The storm is coming. But Matt Yglesias is coming first: “Romney wants to cut FEMA.”
Whenever there’s a major natural disaster, the federal government steps in to help. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if Mitt Romney got his way. During a 2011 GOP primary debate he said it was “immoral” for the federal government to be spending money on disaster relief when it should be focused on deficit reduction.
. . . If a storm damages basic physical infrastructure (power lines, bridges) and imperils human life it would be the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking to suppose that the afflicted area should wait months or years to repair the damage. Ultimately, anyplace is going to go back to robust wealth creation faster if basic stuff gets fixed up faster. But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects — i .e., the federal government. Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation.
Romney did not present disaster relief vs. deficit reduction as an either/or proposition. Like most Republicans, he has argued that we might have more effective disaster relief if we moved some larger part of the responsibility to the state and local levels, and into the private sector. To put the issue in a less boneheadedly simplistic fashion, the question is not whether we: A. spend money on disaster relief or B. reduce the deficit. Rather, the questions are: Given our tenuous fiscal position, is it possible that we are spending too much money on FEMA and related programs? Is that spending maximally effective? Might we be better off decentralizing these efforts?
Yglesias, like many of his like-minded compatriots, presents these arguments as though they were all-or-nothing propositions. This is strange, inasmuch as they pretty clearly recognize the merits of such inquiry when coming from their own side: There are many people who believe that we spend far too much money on national security (I am among them), but only the most gap-toothed among us equate asking uncomfortable questions about military-spending priorities with abandoning national security categorically. Sometimes it makes sense to ask whether the federal government should be doing this at all. Very often it makes sense to ask, as one expects a Romney administration would, whether the federal government is going about this the right way.
On the narrow question of FEMA, the answer is probably no. Like many otherwise worthwhile federal endeavors, including those that happen inside that famous five-sided building in Washington, FEMA has managed over the years to waste truly shocking amounts of money, e.g. spending $416,000 per capita to temporarily house people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, spending nearly $1 billion on manufactured homes that FEMA’s own regulations rendered unusable in many situations, etc. We all remember those $2,000 debit cardsthat were handed out like Christmas candy. In much the same way that some conservatives are more skeptical about foreign military actions when there is a Democratic president, liberals are better at recognizing government waste when there is a Republican president.
There probably is not one major federal program that could not be cut without doing harm to the national interest.
The other part of Yglesias’s argument is that the federal government is the only entity with the financial clout to quickly rebuild infrastructure damaged by hurricanes, floods, and the like. This is the old Rachel Maddow Hoover Dam argument, and it’s no more persuasive in print than on cable. States have access to the credit markets, and they sell bonds to finance infrastructure projects all the time. California raises money with infrastructure bonds so quickly that it can’t spend all the cash, which puts the Golden State in the weird position of being a cash-strapped spendthrift with a big pile of money sitting around doing nothing but costing money.
Part of the argument for pushing programs down to the state and local levels is that you want the money to be spent by the people who have to live with the consequences most directly. Conservatives should be realistic about the down sides of that kind of federalism — even a concentrated dose of Bobby Jindal is not going to mean that Louisiana is no longer Louisiana — but it is not as though the incompetence and corruption that marks many state and local governments will somehow be transformed into an indestructible alloy of virtue and efficiency when ramped up to the national level. Because Louisiana sends people to Congress, too.
States and municipalities have much stronger incentives than do federal agencies to structure fees and taxes in such a way that connects risk to revenue, e.g. by charging higher fees for developers and residents in flood plains or hurricane-prone coastal areas. The federal government’s track record on this is not very good.
The presence of a hurricane is no argument against reforming incontinent federal spending. There is another storm on the horizon, a Category 5 fiscal hurricane that is going to require a lot more than sandbags and linemen crews if we are to bail out way out after it crashes into Washington. We don’t have a bucket that big.