Does the President have too much power through FEMA?

What constitutes a disaster differs, in some cases drastically, depending on which presidential administration is issuing the declaration of disaster.

The Obama administration has, apparently, broken some records in this regard. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Obama administration tops all other administrations in regard to:

The total number of FEMA declarations: 242 versus 158 set in the 1996 election year; t
he number of Major Disaster Declarations (MDDs): 99 versus 75 set in 1996 and 2008; and  the number of Fire Management Assistance Declarations (FMADs): 114 versus 86 set in 2006.

Additionally, the current administration ranks in third place in the issuing of Emergency Declarations, and, this is the case despite the lack of any disasters such as Category 2 or higher hurricanes, earthquakes greater than 6.0 on the Richter Scale or successful terrorist offensives.

Does the President have too much power through FEMA?

The startling accession in the federalization of natural disasters began in 1993, under the direction of the Clinton administration and with the appointment of James Lee Witt as FEMA’s administrator. Clinton broke the 1977 record of 61 declarations with 158 declarations in his reelection year. In contrast, Obama issued 108 declarations in 2009 and another 108 in 2010.  In 2011 he issued 243 declarations.

The chart below illustrates this:

FEMA Chart

The chart demonstrates that in 2011, somewhere in America, a disaster occurred every day and a half that required the intervention of the federal government as a result of these disasters having overwhelmed a state and its local governments. The majority of Americans would have difficulty recalling any disasters, in the United States in 2011, other than Hurricane Irene, the Tuscaloosa tornado and the Joplin tornado.

The Heritage Foundation provides these recommendations on how the federal government should proceed, regarding FEMA:

With exploding federal deficits and perpetual draining of the Disaster Relief Fund, the federal government needs to end the federalization of disasters and get back to the balance that existed under Reagan and the first 206 years of American history. Specifically, Congress should:

Modify the Stafford Act. As the litmus test for federal disaster dollars, the Stafford Act fails to accurately determine which disasters meet the federal requirements and which do not. Congress should establish clear requirements that limit the types of situations in which declarations can be issued—eliminating some types of disasters entirely from FEMA’s portfolio.

Lower the cost-sharing provisions. Congress should reduce the cost-sharing provision for all FEMA declarations to no more than 25 percent of the costs. This will help to ensure that at least three-fourths of the costs of a disaster are borne by the taxpayers living where the disaster took place. For catastrophes with a nationwide impact, such as the Sept. 11 Attacks and Hurricane Katrina, a relief provision could provide a higher federal cost share when the total costs of a disaster exceed a certain threshold amount.

Overhaul existing FEMA processes and procedures. Under the public assistance program, which grants monies to state and local governments for disaster response, FEMA’s processes and procedures are not aligned with the primary focus of catastrophic disaster response: saving lives and property. The program should increase staff and training and include changes in its project worksheets to ensure that costs and damages are accurately assessed on the front end.

It should be noted that many non-federal response initiatives exist,  including corporations and local and state government. For instance, Steven Horwitz of Freeman, with his well-documented research, demonstrates how companies such as Walmart are significantly more efficient and proactive than FEMA in providing assistance during disasters.

In a nutshell from The Heritage Foundation:

From 1953 to today, Presidents have issued 3,367 FEMA declarations.

In just the past 19 years out of those 59 years, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have accounted for 2,213 FEMA declarations, or 66 percent.

It should not be the case that the frequency of disaster declarations increases during years which experience relatively calm weather conditions. 

The power of disaster response should be returned to local and state government, which can handle crises more efficiently.  As Matt Mayer points out in his Heritage Foundation article, “Political expediency and fiscal bailouts should never trump the Constitution.”