This will be one for the record books. – John Miksad, Senior VP for Con Edison
It is going to take weeks to assess the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Transportation is at a standstill. Airlines have grounded thousands of flights. Millions of people are without power. The stock market has been closed for the second straight day; the first time since 1888 that the exchange has been closed for two consecutive days. When all is told, Hurricane Sandy is expected to cost much more than Hurricane Irene, which inflicted nearly $16 billion in damage during the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. The multi-billion dollar losses from Hurricane Sandy will likely be bigger than anyone expected. Not to mention the loss of life that has already occurred. As of this writing, 33 people are dead.
When an event like Hurricane Sandy befalls the nation, the federal government steps in to provide assistance. The extent of federal involvement, however, will be drastically reduced under a Romney Administration. At a Republican primary debate last year, Romney said this:
Like with so many other issues, the American people have a clear choice to make on November 6. Supporting President Obama means supporting continued federal support for disaster relief. Supporting Governor Romney means supporting the transfer of responsibility for disaster relief from the federal government to the states and private sector groups. Romney has made it clear that he would “absolutely” shut down the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“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,” Romney said, in response to a question whether the federal government should continue funding FEMA. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, ‘In the federal budget, what should we cut?’ – we should ask ourselves the opposite question: ‘What should we keep?’ We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, ‘What are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do?’ And those things we’ve got to stop doing, because we’re borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we’re taking in.”
Somewhat surprised, moderator John King asked, “Including disaster relief, though?”
“We cannot – we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future of our kids,” Romney continued. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for use to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before its paid off. It makes no sense.”
Events like Hurricane Sandy bring the debate between “big government” and “small government” into stark relief. Standing at a podium, surrounded by like-minded politicians, and divorced from the immediacy of a natural crisis, it is trivially easy for Romney to say that he would “absolutely” shut down FEMA. But faced with the reality of a national emergency, this position is utterly indefensible. While government should be no bigger than is necessary, “promot[ing] the general welfare” should certainly include federal disaster relief for hurricane victims.
If Romney truly believed what he said about FEMA, and if he is truly the “severely conservative,” cost-cutting, no-nonsense Republican he has painted himself to be, Romney shouldn’t shy away from proclaiming his core convictions and delivering the “hard truths,” even in a situation like this. But in Ohio on Tuesday, Romney refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether he would eliminate FEMA. From the Huffington Post:
TV pool asked at least five times whether he would eliminate FEMA as president/what he would do with FEMA. He ignored the qs but they are audible on cam. The music stopped at points and the qs would have been audible to him . . . “Gov are you going to eliminate FEMA?” a print pooler shouted, receiving no response. Wires reporters asked more questions about FEMA that were ignored. Romney kept coming over near pool to pick up more water. He ignored these questions: “Gov are you going to see some storm damage?” “Gov has [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie invited you to come survey storm damage?” “Gov you’ve been asked 14 times, why are you refusing to answer the question?”
Romney is certainly not alone in Republican circles in targeting FEMA. As Politico notes, “[h]urricane relief has been a nasty political football on Capitol Hill in the past.” Experts note, for example, that Paul Ryan’s House-passed budget, which would cut non-defense discretionary funding by 22 percent, would threaten state’s ability to respond to natural disasters. And Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) notoriously suggested after Hurricane Irene that any federal disaster aid should be offset with budget cuts. Why is this the case? Because Republicans believe States and the private sector can do it better.
Romney’s own record, however, belies the argument that states can handle disaster relief alone. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed a bill that proposed spending $5.7 million on a flood prevention project, which was going to be matched by $22 million in federal spending. The following spring, the downtown area of Peabody, Mass., was flooded and the town was soon underwater. Dan Bosley, the former Democratic state representative of Western Mass., attributed Romney’s error due to a lack of understanding of the issues: “I don’t think it was because he was heartless, he just didn’t know. That’s how he ran his state. His understanding of why you have government, I don’t think he ever had it.”
Even after Sandy, does federal disaster relief still “make no sense” to Mr. Romney? Or, as the editorial page of the New York Times asked, “Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages?” While there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr. Romney’s concern for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, it is clear that this is not what Romney needs. It serves as a stark reminder, just six days before the election, of the profoundly important choice we all face in November.