The Federal Emergency Management Agency is good at winning headlines, as its bailout efforts after Hurricane Fran clearly demonstrated last year. But do we really want to help rebuild homes and government property in areas that should never have been built on in the first place?
FEMA was quite badly managed in the Bush years. But President Clinton's reforms seem to consist mostly of shoveling out as much money as it can while asking as few questions as possible.
In his first year in office, Clinton declared 58 disasters—more than in any previous year. And he's set to break that record easily this year.
From the start, disasters have been good political news for this president. In July 1993, massive Hoods struck the Midwest. ABC's Brit Hume reported that when Clinton visited Iowa flood victims, he was playing the role of the "comforter"—"almost the national chaplain to those in distress." The New York Times and USA Today ran a front page picture of him hugging a 24-year-old woman as she cried on his shoulder.
Clinton promised Midwesterners at least $2.5 billion in aid, and later upped the ante to over $4 billion. Since early 1993, the White House has delivered a total of over $25 billion in disaster aid, including over $7 billion from FEMA.
Last February, Clinton called FEMA "a model disaster-relief agency," perhaps "the most successful part of the federal government today." One key reform: "It used to take a month or more for many people to begin receiving relief, and now people can call in to a 1-800 number and see those checks arrive within days."
As FEMA chief James Witt told a Senate panel in April, "The entire application for federal assistance can now be taken using a computer—a virtually paperless process that is more efficient and takes less time."
But financial chaos lurks beneath that "efficient" surface. A FEMA Inspector General report last year concluded: "Disaster Relief Fund financial data are often unreliable.... Financial audits of the Fund have not been performed because the systems records, and lack of controls made the Fund unauditable."
One symbol of the total chaos: "Many accountants and analysts did not know what their jobs entailed, and questioned their own value to the operation."
As Witt also told the Senate, "As we are all aware, disasters are very political events as well."
The Clinton team has stretched the concept of "major disaster" to cover routine mishaps. Snow, for example, accounts for a large share of the skyrocketing number of federal emergency proclamations.
Last year, Clinton sent federal aid to at least 16 states hit by snow. In many, FEMA reimbursed local governments for the cost of snow plowing. This implicitly assumes that any local or state government is automatically incapable of plowing the snow on any main highway after a big' storm. The effects can be perverse.
Consider Vernon, Conn. Last June, this town of 30,000 received a FEMA emergency relief grant of $40,023 to help cover the cost of the preceding winter's storms.
Now look at the town's budget. Its total costs for snow removal last winter were $258,000. That's just $8.60. per person—less than a 12-year-old charges to shovel out a driveway after a good snowfall.
So why the need for disaster relief? The town had only budgeted $104,516 for snow removal—and thus claimed to be overwhelmed by the heavy costs.
What lesson did the town managers draw? As the Hartford Courant reported, an "optimistic town council has already set the proposed 1996-97 snow-removal budget at $69,383, the lowest level in 15 years."
Why set aside money for a snowy day when you know Washington is glad to help?
Clinton treats FEMA as one of his top good-government achievements. He has even honored Witt, its director, with cabinet rank.
But, as the actions of the Vernon town council show, FEMA's growth may not really be good government at all. Instead, it may be one more cause of the decline of individual responsibility—or even a semblance of respect for such responsibility — in our political culture.