Hurricane Sandy and Why Belief in Effective Government Matters

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

With Hurricane Sandy walloping New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the East Coast with powerful winds, torrential rains, and a massive storm surge, there is renewed interest in a long running debate regarding the proper role of the federal government in providing relief for areas of our nation hit by natural disasters.

On one side are conservatives who seek to privatize disaster relief or devolve it to the states.  For example, when tornadoes ravaged Joplin, Missouri in May 2011 and the Ohio River Valley in May 2012, Mitt Romney, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), Gov. John Kasich (R-OH), and other Republicans attacked the idea of federal disaster relief.  And the GOP has continued to push for cuts in the budgets for Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association despite the critical roles those agencies play in predicting, preparing for, and dealing with the consequences of natural disasters.

On the other side, Democrats believe that the federal government should must take the lead in helping people and communities recover from natural disasters, and in rebuilding infrastructure in the wake of such disasters.  As such, Democrats during both the Clinton and Obama Administrations have worked to rebuild relief agencies such as FEMA that had been decimated by Republican rule.

Below is a post from March 2011 explaining the philosophical differences between the parties on the issue of disaster relief, and how those differences have real world impacts in the lives of millions of Americans who are or will be impacted by natural disasters.  While the post was written approximately 18 months ago, we think it holds true to this day.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“It Ain’t Like Katrina – We’re Getting Help”

Here at Winning Progressive, we define progressivism as the belief that we should use the tools of government to advance important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide. We can and should have debates over whether specific government programs should be reformed, shrunk, expanded, or eliminated, and how we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government programs we have, as such debates are critical to ensuring that government serves the need of the public.  Unfortunately, for years now conservatives have focused not on such a debate, but instead have sought to vilify government as an evil entity that needs to largely be eliminated.  Such a philosophy is detached from reality and does little to benefit the American people.

A prime example of the failure of conservative vilification of government can be seen from the contrast between emergency disaster response to the recent tornadoes in the South, which caused more than 300 deaths and untold property damage, and that of the response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina under the George W. Bush Administration.  The response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) to Hurricane Katrina was inexcusably negligent, as we’ve previously described here.    By contrast, FEMA’s response to the disaster created by the tornadoes in the South has been quite efficient and effective, with even Republican local officials praising the job being done by FEMA.    As a local resident was quoted as saying:

“It ain’t like Katrina,” said Darius Rutley, 21, whose house in Alberta was obliterated. “We’re getting help.”

As Kevin Drum has noted at his Mother Jones blog, the difference in FEMA’s effectiveness to the Southern tornadoes versus Katrina is part of a larger pattern of effective emergency responses during Democratic Administrations and ineffective responses during Republican Administrations.  And the reason for that contrast is that one party has focused on making FEMA an effective government agency, while the other has been blinded by an ideological opposition to government that has served to undermine FEMA’s effectiveness.  The contrast can be seen with regards to:

Appointees: Under President Clinton, FEMA was headed by James Lee Witt, the first FEMA director with emergency planning experience, who turned FEMA into a highly effective agency that successfully handled a number of major disasters. For example, FEMA advance teams were on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 within five hours and three minutes.  President Bush replaced Witt with Joe Allbaugh.  What were Allbaugh’s qualifications to head FEMA?  He had no emergency relief experience, but he was Bush’s campaign chairman!  In 2003, Allbaugh was replaced by Michael Brown, a longtime friend of Allbaugh who also had no emergency relief experience, but was a big time Republican donor and had previously run the International Arabian Horse Association.  The Obama Administration returned to experience rather than cronyism as the basis for selecting a FEMA head. President Obama’s FEMA is run by W. Craig Fugate, who spent eight years as the Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and previously worked as emergency manager for Alachua County, Florida for over a decade.

Philosophy: In May 2001, Bush’s FEMA Director Allbaugh testified to a Senate subcommittee 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.

Similarly, in April 2001, Bush’s budget director, Mitch Daniels, announced the goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. As just one example, in June 2004, FEMA turned the task of developing a hurricane disaster plan for New Orleans over to a private consulting firm named Innovative Emergency Management. In light of the response to Katrina, it appears that if they did come up with a plan, it was not innovative and did not involve any management.

By contrast, President Obama’s FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, has focused not on trying to shrink or eliminate FEMA, but rather on making the agency effective in doing its job of responding to emergencies.

Budgetary Cutbacks: In 2003, FEMA was made part of the Department of Homeland Security.  At the same time, its budget was cut and 500 of its staffers were laid off. In addition, three quarters of the funds that the agency spent on local emergency preparedness and first-responders was shifted to terrorism response rather than natural disasters and accidents.  By contrast, over the past five years, FEMA’s operating budget has increased by nearly $2.5 billion.

The bottom line is that, as the contrast between the Katrina and Southern tornadoes responses shows, a belief by our elected officials in competent, effective government can be the difference between our fellow Americans pulling through disasters as quickly as possible or being left victims of forces far beyond their control.  In other words, in the real world beliefs about government matter.

The GOP is at it Again on Disaster Relief

Monday, March 5th, 2012

The Republicans are at it again.  Faced with an outbreak of tornadoes that have caused death and destruction throughout the Ohio River Valley area, the GOP has not worked to devote whatever resources are necessary to help the impacted communities.  Instead, leading Republicans – most notably Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and Ron Paul – have rejected the idea that the federal government should play any role in providing disaster relief.

Last Friday and Saturday, as many as 79 tornadoes struck Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, which is likely the largest March outbreak of tornadoes in US history.  At least 39 people were killed and towns such as Moscow, Ohio; Henryville, Indiana; and West Liberty, Kentucky, were devastated.   In response, the Red Cross and numerous other organizations are working to provide aid, state and local government officials are stepping up to provide support, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) has informed the Governors of the three states that FEMA’s resources are available to help the impacted communities recover.  Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has asked the federal government for disaster relief, and Indiana’s Senators have also promised to seek federal aid for their state.

Other Republicans, however, have decided to use the disaster as an opportunity to reject the idea that the federal government should provide support in disasters.  Most egregiously, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has turned down federal aid for his state.  As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported:

His decision means tornado-ravaged towns in Ohio will not get federal aid now and are not eligible at this time for potentially millions of dollars in payments and loans.

The governor said Ohio can respond to the crisis without federal help and he would not ask federal authorities to declare the region a disaster area.

“I believe that we can handle this,” Kasich said while visiting a shelter for storm victims at New Richmond High School. “We’ll have down here all the assets of the state.”

Similarly, GOP Presidential candidate Ron Paul attacked the idea of federal disaster relief, stating that “There is no such thing as federal money.  Federal money is just what they steal from the states and steal from you and me.  The people who live in tornado alley, just as I live in hurricane alley, they should have insurance.”

This is hardly a new sentiment for today’s GOP.  For example, when Joplin, Missouri was demolished by tornadoes back in May 2011, Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor (R-VA), and other Republicans similarly attacked the idea of federal disaster relief.  And the W. Bush Administration’s budget cuts, privatization, and crony governance at FEMA played a primary role in the debacle that was the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.

These attacks on disaster relief are yet another example of how many in today’s GOP are willing to prioritize their narrow, reactionary ideological agenda over the good of the American people.  There are few more fundamental or important jobs for government than helping our fellow Americans get through and rebuild from a natural disaster.  And that is exactly why the GOP is attacking it.  In short, disaster relief is a huge flashpoint for conservative zealots because it goes to the heart of the philosophical debate between progressivism and conservatism.

On the progressive side, we believe that while government cannot and should not do everything, it can and should provide societal goods that individuals and the free market cannot or will not provide on their own. And disaster preparedness and relief is a prime example of such societal goods, as individuals cannot possibly be expected to deal with the full impacts of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and the “free” market is likely to respond to such disasters with price gouging and is certainly not going to fund rebuilding public infrastructure that is destroyed by the disaster.

Unfortunately, today’s conservatives have a pathological hatred of anything that suggests government – especially the federal government – might be able to help average Americans. So, they work to cut the budgets and preparedness of disaster relief agencies not only so they can free up more money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but also because they realize that inadequate government responses to disasters help undermine people’s faith in government as an instrument for good.

The most important thing we can do right now is to help the people and communities impacted by these tornadoes by donating to the Red Cross.

And we must also work to challenge conservatives’ ideological zealotry against federal disaster relief by reaffirming the fundamental role that the federal government can and must play in disaster relief, and making sure that disaster relief agencies like FEMA are sufficiently funded to be able to do their jobs effectively.

 

The GOP is Attacking Disaster Relief?!?!?! Really?!?!?

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

 

As Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast last week, leading conservatives stood up not to fight for a robust federal effort to aid the communities that would be impacted, but instead to challenge the idea that federal disaster relief should be a priority.  For example, House GOP majority leader Eric Cantor said that disaster relief should be provided only if the costs were offset by cuts to other parts of the federal budget and, as the New York Times reported:

Representative Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, has gone beyond that view to argue that the federal government’s role in disaster preparation and relief should be cut substantially. Mr. Paul said he saw little value in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the federal approach has given birth to an intrusive bureaucracy and supplants what should be an area for private insurance.

“The bleeding heart will say, well, we have to take care of them,” Mr. Paul said on “Fox News Sunday,” calling FEMA “a gross distortion of insurance” and saying that workers for the agency “hinder the local people, and they hinder volunteers from going in.”

“So there’s no magic about FEMA,” he concluded.

Rep. Cantor had a similar response when tornadoes devastated Joplin, Missouri, and the GOP has continued to push for cuts in the budgets for FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association despite the critical roles those agencies play in predicting, preparing for, and dealing with the consequences of natural disasters. 

While Winning Progressive is used to hearing today’s GOP take absolutely ridiculous positions on issues, we were even a bit shocked to see the GOP questioning the federal government’s role in disaster relief.  For one thing, after the debacle that occurred during Hurricae Katrina due to the W. Bush Administration’s budgetary cutbacks, privatization, and crony governance at FEMA, you would think that the GOP would be hesitant to make disaster relief an issue they speak out strongly on.  And more generally, few things a more important or appropriate job for government than helping our fellow Americans get through and rebuild from a natural disaster. 

Upon furthe reflection, however, we realized that the importance and appropriateness of federal action on disaster relief is exactly why the GOP is attacking it.  In short, disaster relief is a huge flashpoint for conservative zealots because it goes to the heart of the philosophical debate between progressivism and conservatism.

On the progressive side, we believe that while government cannot and should not do everything, it can and should provide societal goods that individuals and the free market cannot or will not provide on their own. And disaster preparedness and relief is a prime example of such societal goods, as individuals cannot possibly be expected to deal with the full impacts of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and the “free” market is likely to respond to such disasters with price gouging and is certainly not going to fund rebuilding public infrastructure that is destroyed by the disaster.

Unfortunately, today’s conservatives have a pathological hatred of anything that suggests government might be able to help average Americans. So, they work to cut the budgets and preparedness of disaster relief agencies not only so they can free up more money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but also because they realize that inadequate government responses to disasters help undermine people’s faith in government as an instrument for good.

In order to challenge this ideological zealotry, we must reaffirm the fundamental role that the federal government can and must play in disaster relief, and make sure that disaster relief agencies like FEMA are sufficiently funded to be able to do their jobs effectively.  We know from the Clinton Administration’s reformation of FEMA, and from the federal government’s response to the tornadoes that swept through the South this past May that federal disaster  relief works.  The key now is just to make sure that conservative ideological zealots do not prevent it from doing so.

“It Ain’t Like Katrina – We’re Getting Help” – Why Belief in Effective Government Matters

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Here at Winning Progressive, we define progressivism as the belief that we should use the tools of government to advance important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide. We can and should have debates over whether specific government programs should be reformed, shrunk, expanded, or eliminated, and how we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government programs we have, as such debates are critical to ensuring that government serves the need of the public.  Unfortunately, for years now conservatives have focused not on such a debate, but instead have sought to vilify government as an evil entity that needs to largely be eliminated.  Such a philosophy is detached from reality and does little to benefit the American people.

A prime example of the failure of conservative vilification of government can be seen from the contrast between emergency disaster response to the recent tornadoes in the South, which caused more than 300 deaths and untold property damage, and that of the response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina under the George W. Bush Administration.  The response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) to Hurricane Katrina was inexcusably negligent, as we’ve previously described here.    By contrast, FEMA’s response to the disaster created by the tornadoes in the South has been quite efficient and effective, with even Republican local officials praising the job being done by FEMA.    As a local resident was quoted as saying:

“It ain’t like Katrina,” said Darius Rutley, 21, whose house in Alberta was obliterated. “We’re getting help.”

As Kevin Drum has noted at his Mother Jones blog, the difference in FEMA’s effectiveness to the Southern tornadoes versus Katrina is part of a larger pattern of effective emergency responses during Democratic Administrations and ineffective responses during Republican Administrations.  And the reason for that contrast is that one party has focused on making FEMA an effective government agency, while the other has been blinded by an ideological opposition to government that has served to undermine FEMA’s effectiveness.  The contrast can be seen with regards to:

Appointees: Under President Clinton, FEMA was headed by James Lee Witt, the first FEMA director with emergency planning experience, who turned FEMA into a highly effective agency that successfully handled a number of major disasters. For example, FEMA advance teams were on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 within five hours and three minutes.  President Bush replaced Witt with Joe Allbaugh.  What were Allbaugh’s qualifications to head FEMA?  He had no emergency relief experience, but he was Bush’s campaign chairman!  In 2003, Allbaugh was replaced by Michael Brown, a longtime friend of Allbaugh who also had no emergency relief experience, but was a big time Republican donor and had previously run the International Arabian Horse Association.  The Obama Administration returned to experience rather than cronyism as the basis for selecting a FEMA head. President Obama’s FEMA is run by W. Craig Fugate, who spent eight years as the Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and previously worked as emergency manager for Alachua County, Florida for over a decade.

Philosophy: In May 2001, Bush’s FEMA Director Allbaugh testified to a Senate subcommittee 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.

Similarly, in April 2001, Bush’s budget director, Mitch Daniels, announced the goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. As just one example, in June 2004, FEMA turned the task of developing a hurricane disaster plan for New Orleans over to a private consulting firm named Innovative Emergency Management. In light of the response to Katrina, it appears that if they did come up with a plan, it was not innovative and did not involve any management.

By contrast, President Obama’s FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, has focused not on trying to shrink or eliminate FEMA, but rather on making the agency effective in doing its job of responding to emergencies.

Budgetary Cutbacks: In 2003, FEMA was made part of the Department of Homeland Security.  At the same time, its budget was cut and 500 of its staffers were laid off. In addition, three quarters of the funds that the agency spent on local emergency preparedness and first-responders was shifted to terrorism response rather than natural disasters and accidents.  By contrast, over the past five years, FEMA’s operating budget has increased by nearly $2.5 billion.

The bottom line is that, as the contrast between the Katrina and Southern tornadoes responses shows, a belief by our elected officials in competent, effective government can be the difference between our fellow Americans pulling through disasters as quickly as possible or being left victims of forces far beyond their control.  In other words, in the real world beliefs about government matter.

If you’d like to help spread the progressive message of why competent, effective government matters, use our Letter to the Editor Campaign links to send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.   And, as always, feel free to share your thoughts about this post at the Winning Progressive Facebook page.

Republican Philosophy #Fail – Ask Katrina Victims

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

 

The federal government is not the solution to all of our problems. It does, however, play a critical role in providing services, such as disaster relief, that cannot or will not be adequately provided by individuals, private business, or state and local governments. In order to do so, government must be provided with adequate resources and the experienced leaders needed to carry out its mission effectively.  Unfortunately, time after time Republican politicians have offered us little more than an orthodoxy of privatization, budgetary cutbacks, and cronyism that does not serve the needs of the American people.  A poster child example of the failure of this Republican philosophy is the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Five years ago this week, my wife and I were on an eight-hour-long drive to visit family for the Labor Day weekend. The entire ride we were tuned into NPR listening to coverage of the horrible disaster that was unfolding in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi due to Katrina. The impacts were staggering – at least 1,800 people dead, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded, more than $80 billion in damages. For days, we saw images and heard news reports of thousands of people huddled on their rooftops waiting to be rescued as the waters rose, and tens of thousands more marooned in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center with little access to food, water, or medical care.

What struck me most listening to the news commentary was the complete absence of the federal government in providing aid to these folks. (more…)