You’ll have noticed that Hurricane Sandy has whipped up a political storm, generated largely by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who during the 2011 primaries said that spending on disaster relief was “immoral” when the nation was in debt.
But it’s not just Romney. FEMA has become a political football on both sides of the aisle in Congress. In 2011, funding for the agency became a central issue in the game of chicken between parties over balancing the federal budget.
But what happens when a disaster comes between a politician and his beloved fiscal discipline? Here’s a look at a few conservative lawmakers who have made the choice between toeing the party line and taking federal dollars.
Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA)
In the clip heard round the world, Romney suggested that as president he would cut FEMA and encourage privatized disaster relief.
What he said then: Let the states handle it. Or better yet, business.
“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.”
When disaster struck: State assistance first, but I won’t say no to FEMA
After massive spring floods in 2006, Massachusetts residents received at least $70 million in federal relief. Following the explosion of a chemical plant in Danvers, Mass later that year, he stated: “We do have FEMA here now…the needs of the state or it should be the needs here, if they can be met by the state, they will be. If it’s beyond the needs or the capability of the state, then we’ll go to the federal government.”
What he says now: States first, FEMA later. Let’s forget about business for now.
Speaking to Politico, his spokesperson said: “Governor 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.”
Congressman Eric Cantor (House Majority Leader, R-VA)
In 2011, Eric Cantor headed a Republican effort to hold back money for FEMA’s emergency fund unless Democrats agreed to balance the money with spending cuts in other departments.
What he said then: Either fund FEMA with other cuts in government spending, or don’t fund it.
Cantor was what the punditocracy called an “attack dog” for slashing federal spending.
When disaster struck
Psst FEMA? Can I get some of that money? The cuts can wait.
At the same time as he was enforcing a hard line in the House, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Cantor asked for a conference call with FEMA directors to secure emergency funds for his own Virginia district, which had been hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake.
What he says now
Hurricanes are scary. FEMA’s a priority.
Following Hurricane Sandy, Cantor’s spokesman stated: “The federal government must prioritize our spending, and one of the highest priorities should be major disaster relief when no other relief is available.”
Sentator Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Coburn is a famous budget hawk who’s nicknamed “Dr. No” for his many refusals to increase government spending. Unlike Tea Party candidates, he was in Congress when Hurricane Katrina hit and has long been a critic of FEMA’s inefficient spending in disaster zones.
What he said then: FEMA may be a great idea, but in practice it’s a wasteful burden.
In 2005, Coburn worked with Senator Obama to pass legislation forcing FEMA to put contracts up for competitive bidding to make the agency more cost-effective. “FEMA’s decision to rebid millions of dollars worth of hurricane relief contracts that were awarded with little or no competition is a victory for all taxpayers.”
When disaster struck: Nope, still don’t like federal disaster relief.
In 2006, Coburn voted against a $4.5 billion disaster relief package that would have helped farmers affected by drought in his home state, fearing it would add needless debt and give farmers a reason not to by crop insurance. He also expressed reluctance to back Oklahoma Representative Frank Lucas’s effort to secure federal disaster aid because it might discourage farmers from buying crop insurance. Senator Coburn is a pretty big fan of crop insurance.
What he says now: Sticking to his guns. FEMA stinks.
He believes that FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina actually increased homelessness in the gulf and that FEMA funds were tied up in red tape instead of going to victims. But Dr. No may be losing steam. Speaking to the Senate in September, Coburn said he doesn’t enjoy coming to work anymore since Congress keeps spending irresponsibly: “The real future of our country is at risk...when we find ourselves $16 trillion in debt, and we’re going to pay for another bill over five years by ten years of changes, we never get out of the problem.”
Congressman Billy Long (R-MO)
Like many Tea Party candidates, Billy Long was elected to Congress in 2010 on a promise to slash runaway government spending, even signing a “no pork pledge” not to ask for federal earmarks for his district. But just weeks after he arrived in Washington, his home district of Joplin, Mo., was devastated by an F-5 tornado.
What he said then: We don’t need the federal government.
His campaign promise: “It’s simply criminal to allow the government to continue to spend money that we don’t have.”
When disaster struck: Yeah, I could really use some help over here.
According to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: "He's worked well with our office, with our shop. When he was asked about FEMA, to rank it shortly after the fact, on a scale of 1 to 10, he said he'd give it a 12." Long also voted to release $1 billion in federal funding to rebuild his home district.
What he says now: Let’s give FEMA more power.
Long is a co-sponsor of the FEMA Flexibility Act, which would allow FEMA officials on the ground to make "micro purchases" (under $15,000) without going up the chain of command in order to get equipment and supplies to disaster victims more quickly.
“As someone who was saw disaster recovery with my own eyes, I know that it is vital to get the right resources to the right people as quickly as possible because lives depend on it.”
Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island)
The Tea Party backed former FBI Agent Michael Grimm in his 2010 run for office. But Grimm, whose Staten Island district was slammed by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, was very pro-FEMA throughout.
What he said then: FEMA’s great. It’s the Democrats who held up funding it, not Republicans.
“The people of Staten Island and Brooklyn hit by Hurricane Irene cannot afford a lapse in FEMA aid. I find it reprehensible that Harry Reid has failed to put the American people before politics and rejected this bill.”
When disaster struck: I need that FEMA money, whose side do you think I’m on?
“I am committed to working with local officials and FEMA to assess the full extent of the damage, so that Staten Island can get the federal aid it needs as quickly as possible.”
What he says now: Hey FEMA, it’s me, Mike. I could really use that money now.
Grimm is already in communication with FEMA to get disaster relief for Staten Island, which experienced severe flooding from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge. His spokeswoman commented that “we are already setting up shop, getting procedures in order," and that Grimm’s office would “get information to them about the most devastated areas, to make sure that they know what's happened out here."