Robinson: Did Romney really suggest privatizing disaster relief?

By Eugene Robinson, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoEugene Robinson

Back when he was being "severely conservative," Republican Mitt Romney suggested that responsibility for disaster relief should be taken from the "big, bad" federal government and given to the states, or perhaps even privatized.

Hurricane Sandy would like to know if he'd care to reconsider.

The absurd — and dangerous — policy prescription came in a GOP presidential primary debate in June. Moderator John King said he had recently visited communities affected by severe weather and noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency "is about to run out of money."

"There are some people … who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role," King said. "How do you deal with something like that?"

Romney replied: "Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

Romney went on to express the general principle that, given the crushing national debt, "we should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, 'What are the things we're doing that we don't have to do?'"

King gave him a chance to back off: "Including disaster relief though?"

Romney didn't blink. "We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," he said, adding that "it is simply immoral … to rack up larger and larger debts, and pass them on to our kids."

Now, with an unprecedented, monstrous storm that bashed the East Coast, this glib exercise in ideological purity is newly relevant. Was Romney really saying that the federal government should abdicate the task of responding to natural disasters such as the one now taking place? Yes, he was. Did he really mean it? Well, with Romney, that's always another question.

As the legendary Watergate source "Deep Throat" never actually said: "Follow the money."

The dishonest "solution" proposed by Romney and running mate Paul Ryan for the federal government's budget woes relies largely on a shell game: Transfer unfunded liabilities to the states.

Most disastrously, this is what Romney and Ryan propose for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. The GOP plan would give the states block grants that would not begin to cover Medicaid's rising costs. Governors and legislatures would be forced to impose draconian cuts, with potentially catastrophic impact for millions of Americans. Medicaid's most expensive role -- and thus, under Romney, the most imperiled -- is to fund nursing home care for seniors who classify as "poor" only because they have exhausted their life savings.

Transferring the onus of Medicaid and other programs to the states would save money only by making it impossible to provide services at current levels. For the hard-right ideologues who control the Republican Party, this would be a good thing. Our society has become too dependent on government, they say, too "entitled" to benefits; we are unwilling to "take personal responsibility and care for" our lives, as Romney said in his secretly recorded "47 percent" speech.

Romney's budget proposals would end all of this "coddling" -- except for the Pentagon and its contractors, who would get a big boost in federal largess, and of course, the wealthy, who would get a huge tax cut.

So-called discretionary federal spending would be sharply reduced. This would include spending for such agencies as FEMA. So yes, even if Romney was just pandering to the right-wing base at that June debate, one consequence of his policies would be to squeeze funding for federal emergency relief.

I guess having to survive a few hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes on our own would certainly foster personal responsibility.