Hurricane Sandy and FEMA Remind Us What This Election Is Really About: Two Very Different Visions

Barack Obama, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and  FEMA

For much of the country, the damage left behind by Hurricane Sandy is throwing some of the most basic questions underlying next week's election into stark relief.

Much of the East Coast is now clearing debris, draining its tunnels, and trying to reestablish electric power, with help from the main federal organization spearheading disaster response: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is also one of the "discretionary spending" items whose funding would be slashed by the sharp budget cuts proposed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

So how has the disaster affected Romney's budget ideas -- and what does it say about federal programs in general?

FEMA's basic job is to help out when disaster strikes. If a state faces a problem that overwhelms its resources, its governor can request FEMA aid, after which the agency moves in, provides support to the state, and organizes other groups that could potentially help, from local police to private construction contractors to the National Guard. Later, after the initial danger passes, FEMA helps residents and municipalities rebuild their lives by offering grants and loans for everything from rent to medical care to home repairs.

A Heckuva Target, Brownie

FEMA has been an attractive target for Republican budget cutters. Last year, U.S. Rep Ron Paul (R-Texas) proposed abolishing the agency, arguing that it "is a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a policy that is deeply flawed." He went on to highlight FEMA as "a great contributor to deficit financing."

While Paul is an outlier, his tight-fisted position regarding disaster relief is shared by many Republicans. Last year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), stated that any federal disaster-relief money that was sent to the victims of a tornado in Joplin, Mo., would have to be offset by cuts from other programs.

Romney's position has been a bit more measured, but he has also indicated a desire to cut FEMA funding. In a Republican primary debate last year, he argued for pushing more of FEMA's responsibilities onto individual states, saying "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."

Given that FEMA is not called in until states admit that they have been overwhelmed by disasters, the notion of replacing the federal agency with state-based disaster relief seems bizarre -- and, arguably, wasteful. After all, if 50 individual states were to replace the full array of staff and resources available to a single, centrally organized FEMA, the added cost to taxpayers would be significant.

Tacking to the Left

With Hurricane Sandy barreling up the coast, Romney's campaign may have realized that his previously stated position on FEMA cuts might not sound quite so sensible to voters after all. In an interview on Monday, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams stated that the candidate believes that, "As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA." As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald points out, this is almost exactly how disaster relief currently works.

And Romney isn't the only leading Republican who has experienced an apparent "Road to Damascus" moment courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. For much of the past year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has attacked Obamacare on the basis of the idea that the program's Medicare expansion is "extortion," and that its individual mandate -- which requires that people buy insurance -- intrudes upon the freedom of individual citizens.

Since Sandy hit New Jersey, however, Christie has had a more measured perspective on the rights of citizens versus the power of the state. Following his order for a mandatory evacuation of many low-lying areas, he berated some of Garden State citizens for refusing to leave their homes: "You're putting other people in harm's way as well ... This is putting first responders in significant, significant danger, and it is not fair to their families for you to be putting them in that danger because you decided that you wanted to be hardheaded."

It's hard to square the Christie who argued that the government had no right to compel people to buy health care with the governor who now argues the state has every right to compel people to leave their homes. Similarly, the governor who once railed against big-government solutions like Obamacare now has much kinder words for the president and the big-government solution that is FEMA. Commenting on Tuesday, Christie said "The federal government's response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally, [and] he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area."

Not surprisingly, Christie didn't mention that this rapid, efficient response was enabled by a federal agency that his fellow Republicans have often criticized as an unnecessary expense.

In many ways, next week's election boils down to a battle between two visions of America's federal government. One party proposes a large, more expensive government that offers robust services to its citizens; the other party wants a small, sleek government that costs a lot less, but offers far skimpier services. As voters across the country ask themselves what kind of government they want and what kind of government they are willing to pay for, it's worth noting that time -- and storm-surge-boosted tides -- have a way of changing how we answer those questions.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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As Stephen Colbert pointed out, the conservatives' position is that the most efficient plan is to rely on a state to respond which has just seen its entire infrastructure washed out to sea.

November 04 2012 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to flcounselor's comment

Liberals just keep sticking their hands out ................................ their entire lives.

November 04 2012 at 9:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

fema being fema....hows that egg on your face,Bruce

FEMA Runs Out Of Water, No Deliveries Until Monday. “In contrast to its stated policy, FEMA failed to have any meaningful supplies of bottled water — or any other supplies, for that matter — stored in nearby facilities as it had proclaimed it would on its website. This was the case despite several days advance warning of the impending storm"

November 03 2012 at 4:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Where is the outrage at Obama's FEMA failure? Liberals are such hypocrites.

November 03 2012 at 3:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sandy was but a cat 1 storm. The northeast can thanks the powers tha be that it was not a Katrina type event. Had it been I am sure Obama would have blamed Bush for it along with the huge mess it would have caused.

November 02 2012 at 1:13 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Storm-Hit New Yorkers Grow Desperate
Three days after the superstorm hit New York City, water, power and heat were still out in many areas and tempers flared in lines.

'It's getting a little crazy down there'

have no fear bruce and fema are here

November 02 2012 at 12:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Same ole crap from the liberal press,obama will provide everything for you,its all free,all those bad rich people got to pay. We want and deserve everything for free,Just **** the government,keep charging up all your bills,spending way more than you can afford,dont live on a budget,and if you cant get any more credit,just go bankrupt,the government will take care of us.VOTE FOR OBAMA.I want my free stuff

November 02 2012 at 12:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

maybe bruce should look at the number one page on aol right now...fema doing a great ya....if fema were any better job instead of dumpsters people would be eating each other

November 02 2012 at 12:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Interesting post from AOL and it's Huffinton Post slant.

If you go back to the June 13, 2011's debate where all this information came from, you might note that Romney also said "Instead of thinking in the Federal Budget, what we should cut - we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what were doing at the Federal level and say, what are the things we are doing that we don't have to do? And those are the things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $ 1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in."

He did not say he would eliminate FEMA. Naturally, everything in the budget would be looked at for help at reducing the budget. That's only natural with every new administration or new FEMA director.

Its just amazing how that was conveniently left out of this article. I can attest to the fact that FEMA can trim some fat and better control it's funding for disasters. What would you say if I told you FEMA hired many temporary people for Hurricane Katrina and then kept them on after Katrina had ended, while continuing to pay these people from Hurricane Katrina funding all the while using them for other disasters (separately funded) and also for other work (non-disaster).

Oh Yes, the FEMA Director, Craig Fugate is quite capable of handling this disaster. That is his job. He was formerly a southern state emergency manger for several years dealing with numerous natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, etc. The FEMA Director doesn't need to have Obama looking over his shoulder taking credit for the directing of FEMA resources that is already taking place. Ex-FEMA Employee

November 02 2012 at 12:30 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Folks I've got to tip my hat to Governor Romney the great Republican. Team Romney Admits “Relief” Event Was Staged for Political Reasons. His campaign was clever enough to go out and by 5000 buck worth of supplies and then force empty handed supporters to grab a jar and donate it back to him....Genius!!!!
I also found this part of the story fascinating. The Romney campaign admits that the intent behind the rally was swing state election visibility, not hurricane relief:
Great going Mitt! First Ryan in the empty soup kitchen washing two pans and now this!!!

November 01 2012 at 11:16 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mitchnoconnell's comment

At first I thought that was pro-Romney. It is just another liberal lie, however.

November 03 2012 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obama's FEMA is a failure. Where is the outrage that was shown for Bush's FEMA? Can you say HYPOCRITES?

November 01 2012 at 11:06 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to freethedems2012's comment