How a former Bush administration official would reform FEMA

President Obama speaks at FEMA Headquarters in Washington in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. President Obama speaks at FEMA Headquarters in Washington in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Hurricane Sandy has focused attention on Mitt Romney's comment that we should shrink the Federal Emergency Management Agency and give states more responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. Is he right? Could conservative reforms actually save FEMA -- and save lives? To get a sense of what a thoughtful Republican plan for the agency might look like, I called Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration official in the Department of Homeland Security and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you make of Romney's comments about FEMA?

He didn't artfully state the point I think he was trying to make.

I think his thrust was that there is an appropriate role for states and local governments, and there is an appropriate role for the federal government. And we've kind of lost sight of that in terms of disaster response. We've nationalized so many of the events over the last few decades that the federal government is involved in virtually every disaster that happens. And that's not the way it's supposed to be. It stresses FEMA unnecessarily. And it allows states to shift costs from themselves to other states, while defunding their own emergency management because Uncle Sam is going to pay. That's not good for anyone.

When FEMA's operational tempo is 100-plus disasters a year, it's always having to do stuff. There's not enough time to truly prepare for a catastrophic event. Time is a finite quantity. And when you're spending time and money on 100-plus declarations, or over 200 last year, that taxes the system. It takes away time you could be spending getting ready for the big stuff.

Why do you think Washington has assumed so much responsibility for dealing with disasters?

I think the first real change was when James Lee Witt was put in charge of FEMA during the Clinton administration, and for the first time it wasn't a Washington Bureaucrat or a former military person. For the first time, it was someone who came from the states and spent most of their career in the states. And so he brought a very state-centric position. And it was also the first time a former politician was put in charge of FEMA. He ran for office seven times in Arkansas, and he brought a very political mindset to FEMA. One of his famous quotes was: "Disasters are inherently political events." And I think that created the opportunity to start using FEMA as an entity that could get involved in things in a way that would have political outcomes. And I think you saw that in 1996, when FEMA eclipsed any record it had previously set and issued 158 declarations in an election year. It was just unprecedented. And it's not like there was just some flurry of activity. They just got involved in lots and lots of different disasters.

Read more at The Atlantic.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.