Why Mitt Romney Wanted to Shutter FEMA

Everyone is having fun today with a clip from an old Republican primary debate in which John King asks Mitt Romney about federal handling of disaster relief. Romney makes a general statement about how it’s always better for states to handle things, and King then follows up:

KING: Including disaster relief, though?

ROMNEY: We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for 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.

WTF? Is Mitt Romney really opposed to federal funding of disaster relief? What was going on here?

It’s worth remembering the context. This debate was held in June 2011, just a few weeks after the disastrous tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. At the time, FEMA was close to running out of money and Republicans were busy holding the country hostage over extension of the debt ceiling. This meant that, yes, FEMA funding really had become controversial. Democrats wanted to pass a supplemental spending bill to keep FEMA going, but on May 30, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor went on Face the Nation to say that he had conditions: there would be no money for Joplin unless something else was cut first.

“I know that America is just stunned by the scope of devastation and loss and the horrific tragedy that the people of Joplin and other places across the country really are experiencing this tornado season,” Cantor said. The federal government typically pays for disaster relief, but Cantor has said repeatedly that the government must maintain fiscal discipline. On Sunday, he compared the situation to that of a family putting off buying a new car when a family member became ill.

“When a family is struck with tragedy — like the family of Joplin … let’s say if they had $10,000 set aside to do something else with, to buy a new car … and then they were struck with a sick member of the family or something, and needed to take that money to apply it to that, that’s what they would do, because families don’t have unlimited money. And, really, neither does the federal government.”

So a week later, this was the background for King’s question. Republican orthodoxy that demanded spending cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling had infested everything, even emergency spending. Sure, Joplin might be suffering, but by God, America was out of money and there was nothing left for them. Romney, who was still in his severely conservative phase back then, went along because he didn’t dare cross Eric Cantor. This is the real problem here. There’s no telling if Romney really believed what he was saying or not, but as president he probably wouldn’t dare cross Cantor either.

For more, see Tim Murphy’s explanation of how Paul Ryan’s budget plan would affect disaster response and funding.

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