Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hurricane Milbank

Desperate to shore up support for a federal government whose support has fallen to a mere 17 percent in a recent Gallup poll (ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Democratic base), Dana Milbank tries to illustrate all of the great things that big government does for us by highlighting the recent experience with Hurricane Irene. It's pretty weak stuff:
Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right. 
On Monday, six years to the day after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and obliterated the notion of a competent federal government, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate offered an anecdote that showed just how different things were with Hurricane Irene. 
On the podium in the White House briefing room, he recalled the satellite images of Irene’s path. “Do you remember seeing the satellite, how big that storm was and how close it was to the state of Florida?” he asked. Fugate, the former emergency management chief in Florida, said that a decade or so ago, “Florida would have had to evacuate based upon this track.” 
Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s improved models predicted landfall in North Carolina, and, in fact, “the track was only about 10 miles off of where they actually thought it was going to come ashore.”
In other words, the feds should be celebrated because weather forecasting has improved over the past decade. Given the advances in science and technology that have taken over place over that time span, it is not apparent why this is much of a surprise, but I suppose one grasps at any straws that are available when making the argument for big government. Milbank later offers up one other piece of evidence in support of his thesis:
Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.
To summarize, big government is a success because hurricane forecasting has improved and FEMA was able to move supplies that tracked the storm's path. Also FEMA provided shelter to government workers in Vermont and some generator power in North Carolina (all this for the low, low price of $10.5 billion, which was FEMA's FY2011 budget request). 

Given this paucity of evidence, how did Milbank fill the rest of the space in his column? By bashing the know-nothings in the Tea Party of course:
More likely, however, Americans won’t have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way. 
In the spending compromise for this year worked out between congressional Republicans and the White House, NOAA’s budget was cut by about $140 million (House Republicans had sought much larger cuts) and money for new satellites was cut by more than $500 million from President Obama’s request. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned in May, “we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings . . . that people have come to expect today.” 
Congressional Democrats and the White House were somewhat more successful this year in resisting cuts to FEMA that Republicans had proposed. But under the House Republicans’ plan to freeze discretionary spending at 2008 levels over a decade, FEMA cuts are inevitable. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress’s Scott Lilly that takes into account inflation and population, this amounts to a 31 percent cut in real per capita spending on discretionary functions such as FEMA.
Those silly/barbaric Tea Partiers, taking a meat cleaver to the NOAA -- how will they survive? Missing from Milbank's column is any kind of context for the numbers provided. Here's what he doesn't tell you: the NOAA's budget for FY 2009 was $4.37 billion. A year later the budget was boosted to $4.75 billion, and the FY 2011 request was for $5.55 billion (which I assume was approved, or something close to it, given Democratic control of Congress at the time). In other words, even if those wascally Tea Partiers cut the NOAA's budget by $500 million, the agency would still be ahead of where it was just two years ago. I suppose such details are irrelevant when one has an ideological axe to grind.

NOAA Administrator Lubchenco's statement that budget cuts would imperil its ability to provide storm warnings -- which smacks of the Washington Monument Syndrome -- is thoroughly unenlightening. Did Milbank expect her to confide that, actually, her agency's budget could be substantially reduced with minimal impact (an implicit acknowledgment that the agency has been wasting money under her watch)? Has the head of a federal entity ever not warned of dire consequences when confronted with possible budget cuts? As a seasoned journalist and longtime Washington hand Milbank is surely aware of this, but then again there's an agenda to advance. 

If big government is such an obvious virtue, why do its supporters struggle so mightily to make the argument for it?

Related: While FEMA was shuttling supplies around the country, guess who else was doing the exact same thing but on a much larger scale and not on the taxpayer dime?

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