Superstorm Sandy left Republican leaders, who typically call for a reduced federal government, welcoming its intervention.
The deadly storm that caused destruction across the northeastern U.S. also muddled the free-market narratives embraced by presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican governors of several states, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who praised President Barack Obama for his help.
The governors have sparred with Obama over expanded health-care coverage, taxes and federal debt, while Republican leaders in Congress have sought to offset or limit disaster-aid costs.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who called Obama’s policies “horrific” on Oct. 1, praised the speed at which the state was granted federal help.
“To get a disaster declaration in literally a matter of hours is almost unprecedented,” McDonnell, a frequent speaker on behalf of Romney, said at a storm briefing yesterday, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper.
“Their prayer is, ‘Lord make me a fiscal conservative, but not quite yet,’” said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, referring to the Republican response to the storm a week before the Nov. 6 election.
The destruction has underlined the central divide in a contest that has turned on the role of the federal government. Romney has been lambasting “trickle-down government” and Obama defending the federal safety net.
The storm also carried risks for Obama, because a botched aid effort would revive memories of President George W. Bush’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Obama yesterday led a conference call from the White House situation room with 13 state governors, seven mayors and the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator. He joined Christie today in New Jersey to view storm damage and speak with aid workers and people affected.
The storm has left a trail of flooding and death, causing billions of dollars in damage.
Republican leaders who say the government should reduce spending to rein in federal deficits have included disaster aid in their calculus. Republican-leaning research groups such as the Heritage Foundation have produced studies showing what they say is out-of-control spending on routine disasters, meant to reward leaders in favored states. A Heritage report in January called it “presidential abuse of FEMA.”
Obama last year signed a record 242 disaster declarations, according to the agency. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a September report that FEMA could do more to reduce administrative costs.
The fiscal year 2013 budget proposed by Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, and passed by the U.S. House in March, suggested using “major disaster metrics” to reduce federal expenditures. The budget would “use existing resources to help communities recover from disasters expeditiously and cost-effectively.”
Romney said in a June 2011 Republican presidential debate that he might shift FEMA’s duties to the states or the private sector. With regard to disaster relief, he said, “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.”
For the second day, the Romney campaign tried to dispel the notion that the candidate would abolish FEMA if elected.
“Governor Romney believes in a very efficient and effective disaster-relief response, and he believes one of the ways to do that is put a premium on states and their efforts to respond to these disasters,” spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters today on the campaign plane. “But he does believe FEMA has a really important role there and that being a partner for these states is the best approach.”
Yesterday, Romney repeatedly declined to answer questions about his earlier statements.
Currently, FEMA is authorized to assist state and local governments following disasters. “FEMA is not the team, but part of a team,” the agency says on its website.
Republican congressional leaders wanted budget cuts last year to offset the $1 billion the Obama administration sought for disaster relief.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said after a May 22, 2011, tornado killed at least 161 people in Joplin, Missouri, that disaster aid should be balanced by other reductions in federal spending. He said in an Aug. 29 Fox News interview that disaster funds “are not unlimited.”
New Jersey’s Christie said his state, suffering from the effects of Hurricane Irene, couldn’t wait for Congress to fight over budget cuts. Virginia’s McDonnell also broke with Cantor, saying on his monthly radio show, “I don’t think it’s the time to get into that debate.”
Matt Mayer, the Heritage visiting fellow who wrote its January report on disasters and was a Department of Homeland Security official under Bush, said his point was that the government “should get out of the business of routine disasters that are not of such severity and magnitude.”
Superstorm Sandy, he said, “is a great example of when FEMA and the federal government are needed.”