Hurricane Sandy and FEMA Remind Us What This Election Is Really About: Two Very Different Visions

Barack Obama, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and  FEMA
Barack Obama, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and FEMA

For much of the country, the damage left behind by Hurricane Sandy is throwing some of the most basic questions underlying next week's election into stark relief.

Much of the East Coast is now clearing debris, draining its tunnels, and trying to reestablish electric power, with help from the main federal organization spearheading disaster response: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is also one of the "discretionary spending" items whose funding would be slashed by the sharp budget cuts proposed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

So how has the disaster affected Romney's budget ideas -- and what does it say about federal programs in general?

FEMA's basic job is to help out when disaster strikes. If a state faces a problem that overwhelms its resources, its governor can request FEMA aid, after which the agency moves in, provides support to the state, and organizes other groups that could potentially help, from local police to private construction contractors to the National Guard. Later, after the initial danger passes, FEMA helps residents and municipalities rebuild their lives by offering grants and loans for everything from rent to medical care to home repairs.

A Heckuva Target, Brownie

FEMA has been an attractive target for Republican budget cutters. Last year, U.S. Rep Ron Paul (R-Texas) proposed abolishing the agency, arguing that it "is a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a policy that is deeply flawed." He went on to highlight FEMA as "a great contributor to deficit financing."

While Paul is an outlier, his tight-fisted position regarding disaster relief is shared by many Republicans. Last year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), stated that any federal disaster-relief money that was sent to the victims of a tornado in Joplin, Mo., would have to be offset by cuts from other programs.

Romney's position has been a bit more measured, but he has also indicated a desire to cut FEMA funding. In a Republican primary debate last year, he argued for pushing more of FEMA's responsibilities onto individual states, saying "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."

Given that FEMA is not called in until states admit that they have been overwhelmed by disasters, the notion of replacing the federal agency with state-based disaster relief seems bizarre -- and, arguably, wasteful. After all, if 50 individual states were to replace the full array of staff and resources available to a single, centrally organized FEMA, the added cost to taxpayers would be significant.

Tacking to the Left

With Hurricane Sandy barreling up the coast, Romney's campaign may have realized that his previously stated position on FEMA cuts might not sound quite so sensible to voters after all. In an interview on Monday, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams stated that the candidate believes that, "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." As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald points out, this is almost exactly how disaster relief currently works.

And Romney isn't the only leading Republican who has experienced an apparent "Road to Damascus" moment courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. For much of the past year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has attacked Obamacare on the basis of the idea that the program's Medicare expansion is "extortion," and that its individual mandate -- which requires that people buy insurance -- intrudes upon the freedom of individual citizens.

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Since Sandy hit New Jersey, however, Christie has had a more measured perspective on the rights of citizens versus the power of the state. Following his order for a mandatory evacuation of many low-lying areas, he berated some of Garden State citizens for refusing to leave their homes: "You're putting other people in harm's way as well ... This is putting first responders in significant, significant danger, and it is not fair to their families for you to be putting them in that danger because you decided that you wanted to be hardheaded."

It's hard to square the Christie who argued that the government had no right to compel people to buy health care with the governor who now argues the state has every right to compel people to leave their homes. Similarly, the governor who once railed against big-government solutions like Obamacare now has much kinder words for the president and the big-government solution that is FEMA. Commenting on Tuesday, Christie said "The federal government's response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally, [and] he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area."

Not surprisingly, Christie didn't mention that this rapid, efficient response was enabled by a federal agency that his fellow Republicans have often criticized as an unnecessary expense.

In many ways, next week's election boils down to a battle between two visions of America's federal government. One party proposes a large, more expensive government that offers robust services to its citizens; the other party wants a small, sleek government that costs a lot less, but offers far skimpier services. As voters across the country ask themselves what kind of government they want and what kind of government they are willing to pay for, it's worth noting that time -- and storm-surge-boosted tides -- have a way of changing how we answer those questions.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.