Yuval, good luck trying to figure out what constitutes a federal “emergency.” There’s no such definition, as it would interfere with the politicization of FEMA. During Clinton’s presidency a “major disaster” was declared on average once every week, far more than any previous presidency. FEMA was originally created in 1979 to help citizens in in event of a nuclear attack. According to a 1988 act of congress, requests for emergency declarations — and the federal relief funds that follow — should be based on a finding that events are “of such severity and magnatitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” However, no concrete guidance for how to make this determination has ever been issued either internally at FEMA or outlined by congress. When Clinton took office after the Cold War ended, he began exploiting the agency’s potential as a vehicle for pork.
As a result, FEMA now regularly covers up to 75 percent of the costs immediately following relatively mundane snowstorms. Further, FEMA funding is also a huge windfall for state and local governments because they are often insured for disasters and FEMA funding allows them to double-dip: FEMA pays for the repairs and rebuilding and whatnot and they get to pocket the insurance money. The pressure from state and local governments to get the Federal government to declare “emergencies” early and often is enormous. (If you’re really interested, there’s a great primer on all this in James Bovard’s excellent Feeling Your Pain.)
So am I surprised that throwing a party for Obama that’s been in the offing for months suddenly consitutes an emergency? No. But what’s worth highlighting is that in order for this to happen Bush had to personally approve it:
President Bush has declared an emergency in the District of Columbia for the inauguration of his successor — an unprecedented move that will allow federal funds and disaster resources to flow more freely to local agencies, according to a FEMA spokesman.
So while liberal commentators have been hounding Bush for not letting Obama check into the Blair House early, I fully expect Rachael Maddow to lead her show tonight thanking Bush for issuing a blank check from the federal government to pay for his successor’s extravagant inauguration.