Whenever there is a major natural disaster in the United States, most people affected look to the U.S. government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide help in its aftermath. That was true here after the devastating 2011 tornadoes. It was true following Hurricane Katrina's 2005 rampage. It is no doubt true now that Hurricane Sandy and a related superstorm continue to batter a goodly portion of the United States.
FEMA's response isn't always up to speed and there often are questions about policy and rules (there were some here after the tornadoes). Usually, though, FEMA does an adequate job providing large-scale disaster aid and assistance in instances where any other agency or the private sector would be hard-pressed to meet staggering need. Not many, then, question the federal agency's overall mission, much less its existence. Mitt Romney, however, does.
He's on record -- in a 2011 GOP primary debate -- as saying that it was "immoral" for the federal government to be spending money on disaster relief, when it should be focused on deficit reduction. He went on to say that states, not the federal government, should deal with natural disasters.
"Every time you have an opportunity to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," the GOP presidential hopeful said. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what should we cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"
A somewhat incredulous debate moderator responded, "Including disaster relief, though?"
Romney replied, "We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things [i.e., disaster relief] without jeopardizing the future of our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."
In other words, debt relief -- the conservative right's political holy grail -- is more important than helping provide basic amenities (food, water shelter, medical assistance) in the wake of sometimes previously unimagined disaster. Romney hadn't changed his mind about FEMA until now -- when tens of millions of Americans are in harm's way the week before the presidential election. That's a little too convenient.
Romney knows he can't take back his original statement about FEMA, so over the weekend he issued an extremely vague press release indicating that he now supports some federal involvement in disaster relief. He offered no explanation of what that might or should involve. That, of course, is vintage Romney: Say whatever is the most politically expedient thing to say, but offer nothing concrete. That allows him enough wiggle room to later interpret the statement in any number of ways -- most of them self-serving.
The truth is that Romney is flip-flopping on federal disaster aid, just as he has on so many other critical issues. The truth, too, is that Romney's original belief is both wrong and the antithesis of the care and concern government should have for all, not just a few, of its citizens.
FEMA provides services that no other agency can afford or arrange on such a vast scale over multiple state borders. It can help restore widespread damage to physical infrastructure and help maintain basic quality of life for individuals when states and the private sector are least able to do so. One might debate about how FEMA does its work, but those like Romney who say its job should be eliminated or truncated have no understanding of the role it does play in times of crisis. This week's massive storm, unfortunately, is likely to teach that lesson anew.