Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disaster Relief at the Federal Level

This video of candidate Romney has been making the anti-Romney rounds on Twitter and Facebook.  In it, he discusses that wherever preferable  the federal government should give up its functions (in this case, federal disaster response functions and FEMA) to the states and the private sector.  I'm sure this also includes education, energy policy, and a whole host of other topics, as per the Republican platform and many other interviews/debates.

There are several problems with this stance.

Moving things to the private sector opens up decisions based on the market, on private budgets, and even to  shareholder whims.  I would argue that central and central-adjacent functions like defense, education, regulation, and disaster relief should never be made private.  In these cases, the Federal government is and should be the 800-lb gorilla, able to throw itself around in order to get things done.

Shifting the power to states wouldn't be that objectionable except for two issues:  First, issues that cross state boundaries require a larger umbrella under which to be effective.  Can you imagine a purely state response to Hurricane Sandy with NY duplicating and not talking to NJ (and DC, and VA, and WV, and growing!)?  Or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or the massive coordination that was needed during 9/11?

And secondly, how would budgets be handled?  Many states have balanced budget amendments to their constitutions, so they can't borrow over their spending limit.  This means that it's quite possible that emergency response functions can get cut during the regular budget process.  When a disaster happens, you can't build up something quickly that isn't there due to last year's budget cuts.

I point to the state education mess that we are in:  overcrowded classrooms, lack of arts, music, physical education classes, meltdown of core STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, and other issues due to state budget cuts.  If anything, this single example of the state-run education system should cause anyone to rethink this approach.

The Federal government is the only large enough entity that can effectively cover all the above: it can coordinate a multi-state effort, can borrow as needed to fund disaster recovery and not be hampered by budgets, and reduce redundancies to have a centralized response.  And while I understand in theory that being controlled by budgets is a good thing, you should not take the time to quibble about budgets and money when lives are on the line.  For all these reasons, the Federal government is uniquely suited for this role.

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