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.