Spokespersons for Romney quickly sought to quell the controversy, insisting that he had been misinterpreted. Yes, they said, Gov. Romney still thinks states should take the lead in addressing disasters. But no, he wouldn’t shutter FEMA.
And that raises the more interesting question: Why not? Even as Romney and the GOP condemn government spending, why does federal emergency relief remain a sacred cow for conservatives and liberals alike?
When Herbert Hoover made his famous trip to flood-ravaged Mississippi in 1927, as secretary of Commerce, he called on state governments and charities – not Uncle Sam – to provide emergency assistance. Even after he ascended to the White House, facing the worst economic crisis in US history, Hoover continued to reject federal relief to struggling localities and individuals. The stopgap measures he implemented late in his term were considered by many – especially voters – to be too little, too late.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover, his New Deal unleashed massive federal spending for public works, farm aid, and much else. Not surprisingly, then, Roosevelt also presided over the first coordinated federal disaster relief. In 1935, he sent thousands of unemployed World War I veterans to Florida to help clean up after a hurricane; more than 200 of them died while doing so.
But direct assistance to affected individuals came much more slowly. In 1950, Congress passed a measure allowing presidents to authorize disaster-related spending on pubic facilities. Yet individuals couldn’t apply for federal aid until the 1969 Disaster Relief Act, passed in the wake of hurricane Camille, which offered temporary housing, unemployment compensation, and small business loans to victims of the tragedy.