Politics of FEMA: Mitt Romney Suggested Less Federal Involvement, Paul Ryan Budget Scrutinized
As the nation's attention turns to the storm and the federal government gears up to assist states, it is worth noting how funding for FEMA and disaster relief have featured in national politics and the presidential race.
Should FEMA be reformed to put a stronger emphasis on the states and less of an emphasis on federal aid?
"Absolutely," said Mitt Romney during a June 13, 2011, GOP primary debate.
As a general rule, Romney added, it would be even better if the private sector could step in. He seemed to indicate that continued spending on disaster relief was "jeopardizing the future of our kids."
Meanwhile, Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which passed the House but not the Senate, envisioned a 41 percent cut next year for the section of the federal government that includes FEMA. In addition, Ryan's committee specifically pointed out that President Obama has declared a record number of disasters during his term.
Here is that exchange from the June debate between Romney and CNN's John King:
KING: What else, Governor Romney? You've been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Mo. I've been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with [disaster], whether it's the tornadoes, the flooding and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say, 'Do it on a case-by-case basis,' and some people who say, you know, 'Maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role.' How do you deal with something like that?
ROMNEY: 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. 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 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. We cannot-
KING: Including disaster relief, though?
ROMNEY: We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. 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. It makes no sense at all.
But a Romney campaign spokeswoman said today not to read too much into the exchange from 2011, that it does not mean Romney wants to institute cuts for FEMA.
"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," said Amanda Hennenberg. "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."
President Obama has declared a record number of disasters. And there have been charges that his administration has been too quick with federal aid. Then again, there has been crazy weather.
Ryan's House-passed budget proposal suggested $11 billion for "Community and Regional Development," a government function that includes FEMA and disaster relief. President Obama's budget allocation was nearly $19 billion. That's a cut of about 40 percent for 2013 under Ryan's plan, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The disparity would grow to more than 60 percent in future years, according to a study by David Kendall of the non-partisan think tank Third Way.
It is not possible to say exactly how much of those cuts would be directed at FEMA because the budget proposal was a broad outline. But FEMA is specifically targeted for reform by Ryan's most recent budget proposal because of the number of disaster declarations. Here is a passage the House Budget Committee report accompanying the budget:
"The current administration has issued a total of 2,213 disaster declarations - 66 percent of all FEMA disaster declarations since 1953 in the span of three years alone. According to the Government Accountability Office [GAO], this is part of a broader trend. From 2002 to 2011, presidents have declared 35 percent more disasters than they did during the preceding decade. The disaster declaration is intended as a process to help state and local governments receive federal assistance when the severity and magnitude of the disaster exceeds state and local resources, and when federal assistance is absolutely necessary. When disaster-relief decisions are not made judiciously, limited resources are diverted away from communities that are truly in need."
The report suggested that a more efficiently run FEMA and disaster declaration process would put response efforts more appropriately in the hands of states.
Disaster funding has been something of a political football over the past several years. Leaders on Capitol Hill had to come up with an agreement back in 2011 to pass $8.8 billion in disaster money without offsetting it by cutting other programs. The government was nearly shut down in 20 11 over the FEMA funding standoff. Ryan was one of 66 House Republicans to oppose that deal.
The Associated Press has reported that Ryan would like lawmakers to find money for disaster relief from within the budget instead of appropriating new money and adding to the deficit.
FEMA could also face cuts of $878 million under mandatory government reductions known as "sequestration" that Congress agreed to as a consequence of not agreeing to a bipartisan deficit reduction plan. That deficit reduction plan didn't happen and now the automatic spending cuts are scheduled to kick in at the end of this year before whoever wins the presidential election is sworn in. But President Obama has vowed to avert them and so has House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. That indicates bipartisan willingness to avert the across-the-board cuts.
ABC News' Emily Friedman contributed to this report.