Posted by: JanF | November 1, 2012

Why I Vote For Democrats: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

President Barack Obama in New Jersey (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

During the 1960s and 1970s, natural disasters hitting the United States underscored the need for a national response and national relief efforts. There were over 100 different federal agencies involved in disaster relief and the states were asking for help.

President Jimmy Carter, Democrat, created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by Executive Order in 1979:

FEMA was established under the 1978 Reorganization Plan No. 3, and activated April 1, 1979 by Jimmy Carter in his Executive Order 12127. In July, Carter signed Executive Order 12148 shifting disaster relief efforts to the new federal level agency. FEMA absorbed the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD.

Under Republican administrations, both FEMA and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” became national jokes because Republicans don’t believe in government and they live in fear that people will discover that, yes, the government is there to help … especially when there is no one else capable of providing the level of help they need.

A short history of FEMA (from’s Frontline):

Pressed by state governors, President Jimmy Carter creates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

During this decade, FEMA is not really tested by a major disaster and under Presidents Reagan and Bush, it endures scandal and becomes known as a sort of backwater and a parking lot for political appointees.

The new Clinton administration appoints James Lee Witt director. He is the first in the agency’s history with direct experience in emergency management.

During Witt’s tenure, both Democrats and Republicans credit him with reforming FEMA by lessening the bureaucracy, emphasizing the input of the agency’s professional staff and focusing on working with communities to prepare for disasters. Charged with coordinating 22 different federal agencies as part of the Federal Response Plan to disasters, FEMA is elevated to a Cabinet-level status in 1996 by President Clinton.

Witt leaves FEMA when George W. Bush becomes president, and Bush appoints his former campaign director, Joe Allbaugh, to succeed Witt. In keeping with the Bush budget-cutting agenda, Allbaugh sets out to trim FEMA. He also wants to focus the agency: Allbaugh identifies the three most likely disasters facing the country — an earthquake in California, a hurricane hitting New Orleans and a terrorist attack in New York.

FEMA is downgraded from an independent agency to a sub-department of Homeland Security. Morale plummets. Scores of lifelong employees leave. Allbaugh leaves for the private sector and Michael Brown, FEMA counsel, takes over.

I need to pause here and remind everyone that the blockquote is not from The Onion.

Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005 and exposed what happens when people who hate the government … and really hate helping people … are put in charge of government agencies whose purpose is to help people. From an editorial in USA Today:

… a deeper review of the agency’s history, the records of its top managers and internal memoranda reveal far deeper problems than a momentary burst of poor decisions. Over the past four years, the Bush administration has replaced competent leaders with people long on political connections but short on disaster management expertise. At the same time, the war on terrorism has drained the agency’s resources and reduced its effectiveness.

Since Katrina, blame for FEMA’s blundering has zeroed in on the agency’s director, Michael Brown. His failure should not have been a surprise. He had almost no experience in disaster work before he was appointed in 2003 by President Bush, and confirmed by the Senate, to lead the agency. Before joining FEMA as its counsel in 2001, Brown, a friend of the FEMA director who hired him, worked for nine years as a commissioner at an Arabian horse association.

But that’s only the tip of FEMA’s management problems. Brown’s top deputy, Patrick Rhode, is equally inexperienced, according to his résumé. Rhode worked for Bush’s 2000 campaign and for the White House doing advance operations. Another senior FEMA manager, Daniel Craig, had been a lobbyist for electric cooperatives.

That is how the Republicans “govern”. An agency or program is created out of real need to help real people and the Republicans defund it and staff it with incompetents … and then point to it as an example of government incompetence!! And in the case of FEMA, they did it not once, but twice, counting on the amnesia of the American public: “How did that happen?”

But FEMA does have value to Republicans … as a hostage in extortion attempts to cut funding of other federal programs that help the poor. After an earthquake in 2011:

House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have vowed that any new funding for FEMA will have to come from money cut elsewhere from the federal budget.

“We’ve had discussions about these things before and [FEMA] monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government’s role in a situation like this,” Cantor said at a news conference after last week’s earthquake.

When you care about people, you don’t use them as political pawns:

“We should try to realistically budget for emergencies but millions of Americans will suffer if we artificially handcuff the government when it comes to disaster relief,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, [Maryland Democrat] “That’s a negligent approach to governing.

And for those who believe that Democrats are politicizing Hurricane Sandy, it is less “politicizing a disaster” than pointing out the stark differences between Republicans and Democrats in their beliefs about the role of the federal government.

From Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine:

What you are going to see over the next week is an overt effort by Democrats to politicize the issue of disaster response. They’re right to do it. Conservatives are already complaining about this, but the attempt to wall disaster response off from politics in the aftermath of a disaster is an attempt to insulate Republicans from the consequences of their policies.

And from Joan Walsh at Salon (“Mitt Romney, the hollow man )”:

It’s become a platitude to say that no one should be playing politics with Hurricane Sandy, but that’s silly. When the performance of government suddenly becomes a literal matter of life and death to many Americans, we ought to be thinking about what kind of government we want to have, and that involves politics.

Believing in the value of government programs … and funding those programs and staffing them with competent people … another reason I Vote For Democrats and why you should too.