In Disaster Relief, Bigger Government Isn't Always Better

November 6, 2012

The wind and rain from Hurricane Sandy hadn’t even stopped before some people argued that the storm made the case against reducing the size of the federal government or giving states more say in their affairs. The federal response to a crisis became the proxy for big government in all its bureaucratic glory. Cutting government, we were meant to understand, means letting Sandy’s victims fend for themselves.

This is the classic straw-man gambit. To argue in favor of smaller or less costly government is not to demand no government at all. Opposition to, say, the federal government granting $505,000 to a thriving company that makes pet toothpaste and shampoo doesn’t lead inexorably to opposing disaster relief. Calls for reforming a Medicare program that is at least $38 trillion in debt aren’t tantamount to saying that the storm-stricken people of New York and New Jersey should be on their own.

An old trick of governments at all levels is to respond to the prospect of spending cuts by announcing that they will lay off teachers and firefighters first. By targeting the most essential services, they try to assure that public outcry will keep the tax dollars flowing. Equating disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with big government and big spending in general represents the same old scam.

The federal government spent $10 billion on disaster relief last year. That amounts to roughly 0.002% of federal spending. It also suggests that an awful lot of federal spending could be cut before we put FEMA under the knife. One might even argue that a smaller, leaner and more efficient government could better offer services such as disaster relief. A government that tries to do everything is liable to do nothing particularly well.

The government’s initial response to Hurricane Sandy has received widespread praise. In particular, officials in the hardest hit areas have noted that FEMA has done a much better job than in previous disasters at pre-positioning equipment and supplies. However, it is far too early to give final grades. Already questions are being raised about whether federal assistance is being directed to the most needy areas first.

More broadly, though, there is no reason to believe that federal disaster-relief programs are immune from the same bureaucratic waste and inefficiency that beset other government programs. FEMA spent $878 million on prefabricated homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then allowed thousands of them to rot in storage lots because the agency’s own regulations prohibited them from being used in flood plains such as Louisiana’s. The agency also spent as much as $416,000 per family to house some families temporarily in the wake of Katrina. These and many other examples of mismanagement have been documented before Congress and elsewhere.

While FEMA’s management may have improved in recent years, problems persist. As recently as 2010, an independent audit for the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General ran to more than 40 pages of waste, fraud and abuse, including some contracts—such as one to a hotel chain to temporarily house victims of Iowa flooding—that had cost overruns in excess of 1,000%.

Nor has federal disaster aid been immune from politics. History shows that the more politically important a state is, especially to a presidential re-election effort, the more likely it is to receive a federal disaster declaration. (See studies such as “The Political Economy of FEMA Disaster Payments,” published in the journal Economic Enquiry in 2003, or the 2006 Cato report, “Flirting with Disaster: The Inherent Problems With FEMA.”)

Over the decades, the number of federal disaster declarations—which can cover everything from minor events in a town to major storms affecting many states—has been rising. But the number seems to spike in years divisible by four. In 1996, Bill Clinton set a then-record with 75 disaster declarations. In 2004, George W. Bush found 68 reasons to hand out federal disaster relief. This year, the Obama administration’s number of disaster declarations is on track for another record.

Either nature (or global warming, if you will) works in an odd election-year cycle, or something other than purely humanitarian concern is at work here. Another notable item: States represented on the congressional committees overseeing FEMA tend to receive the most money for disaster response.

Mitt Romney is being attacked in some quarters because he suggested in a 2011 debate that some federal disaster-relief functions might be shifted to the states. Critics claim that this means he simply doesn’t care about people affected by disaster—that he is putting dollars and ideology before people’s lives. But might not a more locally focused disaster-relief program make sense?

After all, much of the federal government’s relief efforts simply amount to shifting funds from one part of the country to another and back again. Yesterday New York paid for assistance to Louisiana; today Louisiana pays for assistance to New York. Is that necessarily the most efficient way to accomplish our goals?

FEMA essentially represents a centralized “command and control” approach to disaster relief. It presumes that only the experts in Washington—not state and local officials, and certainly not private charities—know best how to respond to local needs and conditions.

In the wake of Katrina and other disasters, there have been numerous stories of federal officials rejecting offers of assistance—from Coca-Cola offering to send water, for example, or private organizations trying to deliver hospital supplies—because those offers didn’t fit neatly into the bureaucratic script. Initial indications do suggest that with Hurricane Sandy, federal, state and local coordination has been better. But that doesn’t argue against giving more authority, and more responsibility, to those actually in the affected areas.

The bottom line: Big government is seldom the same as effective government. That applies as much to disaster relief as to anything else.

This article appeared on The Wall Street Journal on November 3, 2012.

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