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.
This anti–federal government philosophy led to both a human and political disaster. Yet today, Republicans in the House of Representatives are less than seventy-two hours away from leaving FEMA without any money to operate as they continue a crusade against federal spending.
When Hurricane Irene walloped twelve states in late August, FEMA took emergency measures to divert funding from many other projects to respond to the destruction. Now, the agency has only $215 million on hand, which is far below the $1 billion the agency wants to have access to at all times in case disaster should strike again. It could completely run out of money as soon as Monday.
Over the past couple of weeks, a non-controversial bill to extend government funding through mid-November suddenly heated up when Republicans refused to allow the additional FEMA funding without also including offsetting cuts from other programs, which is an unprecedented move—there has generally always been bipartisan agreement on providing immediate disaster aid. But Republicans passed a bill last night that offsets some of the disaster aid with $1.5 billion in cuts from a loan program for energy efficient vehicle production, along with rescinding $100 million in loans to the scandal-plagued company Solyndra.
The Senate has already passed—with the help of ten Republicans—a bill that provides the disaster relief with no strings attached, and majority leader Harry Reid has already pledged to kill the House bill.
House Republicans knew the Senate would not accept their bill, but are intent on catering to the hardline fiscal conservatives. “Change like this is hard,” House majority leader Eric Cantor defiantly said Wednesday. “We’ll find a way forward so that we can reflect expectations that taxpayers have that we are going to begin to start spending their money more prudently.”
Clearly, Republicans don’t find it “prudent” to ensure money for fundamental government functions like helping citizens after natural disasters. As Ben Adler has noted, the GOP candidates running for president show a similar contempt for the role of the federal government. The party was bitten badly by this philosophy once before—but clearly they drew no lessons from it.