DHS Shutdown

February 25, 2015
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Policymakers are battling over a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The disagreement over the bill involves the funding of President Obama’s recent immigration actions.

If a DHS funding bill is not approved, the department will partially shut down. The administration has been highlighting the negative effects of that possibility, but the battle illustrates how the government has grown far too large. Federal shutdowns may cause disruption, but that is because the government has extended its tentacles into activities that should be left to state and local governments and the private sector.

To the extent possible, we should move the most important activities in society out of Washington because the federal government has become such a screwed-up institution. Air traffic control, for example, is too crucial to allow it to get caught in D.C. budget squabbles, as it did in 2013. Air traffic control should be privatized.

Let’s look at the story being told by FEMA head Craig Fugate about a possible shutdown:

I can say with certainty that the current standoff has a real impact on our ability to ensure that a wide range of emergency personnel across the country have the resources they need to do their jobs and keep our communities safer and more secure…

At FEMA, one of our critical missions is reviewing applications and awarding grants to communities across the country, which can help firefighters, police officers, hospital workers, and emergency managers get the staff, training and equipment they need to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate a wide array of hazards…

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another continuing resolution, which only provides short-term, temporary funding to our agency. This isn’t just a slight technical difference – it has a major impact on our ability to assist state, local, and tribal public safety agencies…

Making matters worse, the current situation is a showstopper for our grant program. Our application process for grants should have started in October; it is now February and we still haven’t been able to issue new grants. Moreover, during these ongoing continuing resolutions, local first responders from across the U.S. have made plans to attend training classes at one of our three national training centers, where they will learn valuable skills they can bring back to their communities – only to have a wrench thrown in the works caused by uncertainty in the budget. Our state, local, and tribal partners are facing increasingly urgent choices about how they will make ends meet without matching FEMA grants.

Mr. Fugate is a well-regarded leader, unlike some of FEMA’s past leaders. But his argument is like if the government took over food distribution in America, the Federal Administrator for Food would point to the urgent crisis if his budget was blocked. The lesson is that the more control the federal government has over society, the more vulnerable we all are to its dysfunction.

As for FEMA, my recent study examines why it is a mistake to fund and direct disaster preparation, response, and relief from Washington. FEMA’s response to some major disasters has been slow, disorganized, and profligate. Fugate implied that local police and firefighters across the country are now hooked on the federal teat. How could that possibly be a good idea?

Federalism is supposed to undergird America’s system of handling disasters, particularly natural disasters. State, local, and private organizations should play the dominant role. So however the current battle over DHS funding turns out, policymakers should begin cutting FEMA’s budget and handing back responsibility for disasters to the states and private sector.

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