Mitt on Emergency Management: Status Quo Minus

So Mitt Romney’s crabwise retreat from his primary campaign suggestion of just dumping emergency management responsibilities on the states is this:

Asked Monday whether Romney held the same position he did at the June 2011 debate, Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg explained the candidate believes “states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions.”

“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,” Henneberg said. “This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

Oh, okay: Mitt just wants states to have more control over emergency management, not to abolish federal assistance altogether, right?

Trouble is, that’s pretty much the way it is right now, under the Stafford Act, which gives states and localities most of the authority to determine when and how the feds get involved. So Mitt’s bold idea is current law. It’s kinda reminiscent of his pledge to make sure people with pre-existing conditions can obtain health insurance: he’s all for that to the extent that they can already get a chance to pay the employer share of premiums for an existing policy (great comfort to someone who’s just lost a job) or may qualify for crappy, expensive state “risk pool” policies.

So does that mean at least we won’t see an abandonment of current federal responsibility to make sure states and localities have the emergency management resources and coordination they often need? No, it doesn’t. As I mentioned yesterday (and Jonathan Chait underlines today), FEMA is one of those many federal government functions that the Romney/Ryan budget blueprints places in the most vulnerable, sure-to-get-hammered category, non-defense discretionary spending. Theoretically Republicans could single out emergency management as a higher priority than other items on this budgetary killing floor, but their prior attitudes don’t exactly make that likely.

And it’s not, BTW, just a matter of money. When Republicans do not consider a federal government responsibility particularly “legitimate,” they tend to do a very, very poor job in handling it, often using federal agencies as patronage operations. As Alan Wolfe pointed out in the Washington Monthly back in 2006, the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina was no aberration:

Upon assuming office, George W. Bush turned to former Texas campaign aide Joe Allbaugh to run FEMA and then shifted it into the new Department of Homeland Security (whose creation he had opposed). Allbaugh, and his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, like so many Bush appointees, were afflicted with what we might call “learned incompetence.” They did not fail merely out of ignorance and inexperience. Their ineptness, rather, was active rather than passive, the end result of a deliberate determination to prove that the federal government simply should not be in the business of disaster management. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,” Allbaugh had testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee in May, 2001. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” There was the conservative dilemma in a nutshell: a man put in charge of a mission in which he did not believe.

Allbaugh’s comments on emergency management sound a lot like Mitt’s, not only the first statement, but even the second. As in so many other areas, a Republican administration that can’t or won’t go to the trouble of getting rid of a given federal responsibility–or admitting they want to–will probably just treat it like a stepchild. So even when their formal position is “status quo,” it’s very likely going to be “status quo minus.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.