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Disaster Politics

Part One: Disaster Inflation?

When the FY 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill cleared the House of Representatives on June 2, 2011, it contained steep cuts to state and local grants, research and development programs, and administrative accounts – but the House had also added $2 billion above the administration’s request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) depleted disaster relief accounts. In an overall budget of $40.6 billion, this was a significant amount, more than doubling the administration’s request of $1.8 billion.

One obvious explanation for the depletion of FEMA’s disaster relief accounts was the spring of 2011, in which communities throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River basins experienced extreme floods – some of the most destructive in the past century – and deadly tornadoes struck throughout the Midwest and South.

In her March 2011 overview of the administration’s proposed Homeland Security budget (, Jena Baker McNeill, Homeland Security policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested an additional reason: FEMA’s disaster relief accounts are continually underfunded, she wrote, in an attempt to present a leaner, more palatable Homeland Security budget, supplemental amounts for disaster response requested later. In 2010, McNeill pointed out, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate asked for $5.1 billion in supplemental funds.

Disaster is a difficult item to budget, and surely it’s a safer bet to have more money available for response and recovery efforts – but in general, governments don’t do a good job of sitting on unobligated funds. Whether the cycle of supplemental funding requests is a political ploy, or a means of preserving funds by requesting them as needed, is a fair question.

McNeill’s overview raises another interesting issue about disaster funding: the dramatic increase, over the past few administrations, in presidential disaster declarations. “Since 1989,” McNeill wrote, “the number of FEMA disaster declarations per year has tripled from 43 under President George H.W. Bush to 89 under President Bill Clinton to 130 under President George W. Bush. In two years, President Obama issued 216 declarations without the occurrence of one hurricane or other major disaster.”

McNeil traces these increases to passage of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, which authorizes the federal government to pay 75 to 100 percent of disaster response costs if FEMA has issued a disaster declaration. As state budgets decline, she said, governors increasingly seek federal disaster declarations, taking advantage of the law’s “ambiguous” provisions and low damage thresholds.

In addition, there is evidence that disaster declarations are politically driven. Data compiled by the Public Entity Risk Institute (, a nonprofit resource for enhancing risk management efforts of organizations and governments, shows that, dating back to the Eisenhower administration, a majority of states – and especially battleground or key primary election states – have been more likely to have disasters declared during re-election years.

While these data hint at a corrupt process, it seems unsurprising in the American democracy, in which government spending in all areas seems to find its way to important political constituencies, especially during election years. But is the dramatic increase in presidential disaster declarations over the past few administrations solely due to the Stafford Act, which gives the president sole authority to determine what constitutes a “major” disaster, as well as the power to declare a federal disaster?

Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes the issue is more complicated than that. “The fact of the matter,” he said, “is that [in recent years] we have experienced more large-scale natural disasters globally than we have in the past … so I don’t think it’s totally politically motivated. At the same time, we do have a model set up where, if you want to get federal resources, you do have to get declared a natural disaster.”

Another incentive may simply be the political cost-benefit analysis of a declaration – as  Obama found out this spring, after he declined a request from the state of Texas for federal assistance to fight wildfires and was publicly excoriated by Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison ( Following a single event, it will probably always be less controversial for a president to declare a disaster and send federal money.

Increases in federal disaster spending since passage of the Stafford Act have some calling for revisions to the law’s provisions. In 2006, President George W. Bush approved every single request for federal disaster funding – and it shouldn’t be so easy, critics say, for a president to loosen the federal purse strings.

So far, however, proposals to insert checks and balances into the process – revising the law to spell out more clearly what constitutes a disaster, or to make a declaration subject to the approval of an outside entity such as an expert council or congressional panel – have gained little traction. Americans seem unlikely to accept the idea of legislators debating the fate of their community while the clock ticks after a disaster. And that’s probably for the best, Nelson said: “You have to give the president and the executive branch leadership,” he said, “and the governors the ability to make judgments regarding their communities. That’s what they’re elected to do.”

Part Two: Striking a Balance


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...