Yesterday, we noted that even as a massive super storm was bearing down on the East Coast, Mitt Romney’s campaign was standing by his suggestion in a GOP debate last year that he would end FEMA and make the states handle disaster relief on their own. But how much has changed in 24 hours. As we wake up to see the disaster Hurricane Sandy had wrought, we also find a new position for Romney, who now says he wants to keep FEMA.
In a GOP primary debate in June of last year, moderator John King asked Romney if he would let states take on the responsibilities of FEMA, which was “about to run out of money.” “Absolutely,” Romney replied. “And 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 … We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things,” he added.
After the Huffington Post highlighted the quote Sunday under the headline, “Mitt Romney in GOP Debate: Shut Down Federal Disaster Agency, Send Responsibility to the States,” a spokesperson for the Romney campaign followed up with editor Ryan Grim. Did the spokesperson say Grim’s characterization of Romney’s comments was wrong? Nope. “Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters,” was all the unnamed Romney official said.
As we noted yesterday, eliminating the federal component of disaster relief is a terrible idea. And after Hurricane Sandy has left millions suffering, the Romney campaign seems to have come around. “Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions. 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,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement to Politico’s Andrew Restuccia.
It’s worth noting that what Williams describes is basically exactly the way emergency management functions now, though he curiously left out any mention of local and municipal responders, who are really in the best position to affect aid. When locals get overwhelmed, they bring in state resources. When state resources get overwhelmed, they bring in federal resources. As FEMA explains about the National Incident Management System, the national standardized process that various tiers of government used to work together in emergencies: “NIMS does not take command away from state and local authorities … The intention of the federal government in these situations is not to command the response but, rather, to support the affected local, tribal, and/or state governments.”
There is a valid, though wonky, critique to be made of the current system of cost allocation between states and Washington. When the president declares a federal disaster area, the federal government commits to paying for 75 percent of the recovery effort. A report from the Government Accountability Office this year found that the formula used to determine whether states can handle the financial burdens of disasters on their own has not adequately kept up with inflation and increases in household incomes. So the federal government ends up taking on financial obligation that states could and should afford on their own.
Changing the way the threshold is calculated would save the federal government lots of money, but that’s not at all what Mitt Romney was talking about. He was making an ideological argument, not an accounting one. And by coming back around to support basically the status quo, it’s hard to see his position on FEMA as anything but another flip-flop.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.