Oct. 29, 2012— -- Though the presidential campaigns have been focused on Hurricane Sandy, the politically sticky topic of disaster relief is making its way to the forefront.
With Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, supporters of President Barack Obama are saying that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would gut FEMA, leaving it incapable of handling a massive hurricane or tornado.
How would Romney handle FEMA if he was elected president?
In a June 13, 2011 GOP primary debate, Romney suggested that states should assume a more significant role in disaster relief. The debate took place soon after a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri and other communities, and moderator John King of CNN asked Romney whether states should take on a greater role in paying to repair and rebuild.
"Absolutely. 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," Romney said. "Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut -- we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep?"
When asked a follow up on whether disaster relief should shift to the states, Romney said: "We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," he said.
"It is simply immoral, in my view, for us 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 it's paid off," he added. "It makes no sense at all."
Romney did not go as far as some reports have suggested, which say he would shut down the agency entirely. But he has made it clear that he would shift more responsibility to the states or private agencies when it comes to disaster relief in an effort to reduce federal spending and the deficit.
"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," said Romney campaign spokesman Yohana de la Torre. "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."
Even if Romney FEMA left standing, Obama backers argue that a diminished agency would make it extremely difficult for municipalities to recover quickly from significant natural disasters. That could hurt the nation's economy as towns and states if delays in recoveries occur due to gaps in federal assistance.
"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," writes Slate's Matthew Yglesias.
The Romney campaign points out that FEMA could face cuts anyway due to mandatory spending cuts under a deal passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. The "sequestration" cuts were triggered when Congress failed to reach an accord on a deficit reduction deal on its own. According to the Office of Management and Budget, FEMA could lose out on $878 million. Of that money, $580 million from direct disaster relief would be slashed from FEMA's budget.
But it's unclear whether the sequestration cuts will take effect, since Obama and congressional Republicans have expressed desire to avert them.
Romney's running mate Paul Ryan has also drawn attention for the impact his budget plans could have on federal disaster funding.
Ryan's 2012 "Path to Prosperity" budget blueprint does not include specific cuts to disaster relief or FEMA, but it is possible that proposed cuts to non-defense discretionary spending could cause disaster relief funding to be shifted from the federal government to the states.
Here is what the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) says about Ryan's plan's effect on federal disaster funding:
"This form of discretionary federal aid would be subject to cuts under the Ryan budget. If it were scaled back substantially, states and localities would need to bear a larger share of the costs of disaster response and recovery, or attempt to make do with less during difficult times."
Congress struggled to come together last fall on a deal to pass a deal to avert a government shutdown last fall, and at the center of the fight was disaster funding. At the time, under strain after Joplin, it appeared that FEMA would run out of money to continue disaster relief through the end of the fiscal year in September. House Republicans demanded that more funding for federal disaster relief should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
But when it became apparent FEMA would have enough money to close out the last fiscal year, a deal was eventually passed that contained $2.65 billion for FEMA this fiscal year with no offsets.
At the time, Ryan opposed a broader federal disaster-relief fund backed by Obama that budgets for aid before natural disasters occur, the Associated Press reported. The plan eventually was signed into law. Ryan would prefer to find disaster funding from cutting elsewhere in the budget.
But Republicans have argued that Obama has been too quick to make federal disaster declarations, which allow FEMA to spend money on relief, and thus have overused the agency's powers.
A report from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation notes that Obama issued 243 disaster declarations in 2011, while George H.W. Bush issued 173 during his entire four-year presidency. The report notes that the trend began with former President Bill Clinton and continued under George W. Bush.
Conservative accuse Obama of overusing disaster declarations have demanded that Congress impose greater restrictions on when they can be issued.
"Major multi-state storms, like Hurricane Sandy, are exactly why FEMA was created. Non-lethal 5.8 earthquakes in Virginia are not," the conservative Washington Examiner wrote today.
A2013 budget resolution from Ryan's committee in Congress called on FEMA to use more scrutiny in distributing disaster funds to states and localities in an effort to cut down on disaster declarations.
But Obama's supporters are quick to remind that there have been a number of significant natural disasters during his first term that have warranted a robust federal response, from wildfires in Texas and California, to Hurricane Irene, saying that FEMA funding is the last thing that should be cut.
With Hurricane Isaac threatening the GOP convention in Tampa in August, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) criticized the Republicans' approach.
"Some Republicans are still fighting this," she told the AP. "And it is kind of ironic that the storm was at some point headed towards Tampa during their convention. That would have been the irony of all ironies for this storm to hit Tampa when the Republicans were the ones saying `we need to find offsets'" for disaster aid.
ABC News' Zachary Wolf contributed research.