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Does Mitt Romney Want to Get Rid of FEMA?


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a campaign event in Fishersville, Virginia on Oct. 4, 2012

Photograph by Eric Thayer/The New York Times via Redux

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a campaign event in Fishersville, Virginia on Oct. 4, 2012

4 p.m., Oct. 30, 2012 — One of the problems politicians face, when claiming to want to cut government, is that occasionally the importance of having a strong, functioning government becomes vividly clear—like after a giant hurricane. That complicates things in a way that can be mighty awkward, as Mitt Romney is finding out today.

Last year, during one of the GOP presidential debates, Romney seemed to indicate that he wanted to cut or even privatize the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the time, his comments barely made a ripple. Now, with FEMA leading the rescue efforts after Hurricane Sandy, the question of what Romney would do with the agency if he were to become president suddenly seems a lot more salient. And suddenly Romney doesn’t want to talk about it, presumably because the prospect of gutting the budget for first responders or pushing them into the private sector wouldn’t be very popular when they are breaking their backs to help people after the hurricane.

Throughout the day following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, reporters traveling with Romney have asked him what he’d do with FEMA—they asked him 14 different times, according to this report—and he has refused to answer. The question is all the more awkward because Romney has recast today’s campaign rally as a “storm relief event.”

Consider the transcript (PDF) from the CNN/WMUR debate in which Romney issued the following exchange about FEMA:

“JOHN KING: What else, Governor Romney? You’ve been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Mo. I’ve been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with [disaster], whether it’s the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say, ‘Do it on a case-by-case basis,’ and some people who say, you know, ‘Maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role.’ How do you deal with something like that?

“ROMNEY: Absolutely. 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. Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut—we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do? And those things we’ve got to stop doing, because we’re borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we’re taking in. We cannot—

“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.”

—Joshua Green

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Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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