Sometime next week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will officially run out of money if Congress doesn’t act. Unprecedented demands and gamesmanship by Republicans in the House of Representatives are threatening a funding bill for the agency, along with disaster relief for Americans affected by the recent hurricanes. Watching the spectacle unfold, it’s impossible not to marvel at short Republican memories—it wasn’t that long ago that playing politics with FEMA proved disastrous for the GOP.
By many accounts, the federal government’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was a turning point in George W. Bush’s presidency. His administration was shown to be incapable of even basic functions of government—helping desperate citizens in desperate need following a natural disaster. After they left the White House, several Bush aides acknowledged that this was the moment that the Bush presidency was irredeemably lost:
Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president: Politically, it was the final nail in the coffin.
Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn’t matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn’t matter. P.R.? It didn’t matter. Travel? It didn’t matter. I knew when Katrina—I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We’re done.
In the weeks and months after the disaster, FEMA and Bush’s appointee to lead it, Michael Brown, quickly became the focal point of the botched administration response. Brown was the former head of the International Arabian Horse Association before coming to the agency, which needless to say didn’t give him much experience in dealing with natural disaster response. But he was a close ally to Bush during his political career, and that’s what counted.
It turned out that FEMA had been hollowed out as part of deliberate strategy—one based on the conservative philosophy that the federal government simply shouldn’t have a large role in people’s lives, even if it meant rescuing those lives from disaster. Bush’s first appointee to head FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, told the Senate during his confirmation process that “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…. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” As the years went on, career FEMA employees complained that “our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors.” The deliberate neglect culminated in Brown’s appointment, followed by hundreds and hundreds of potentially unnecessary deaths in a major American city.