Did Mitt Romney suggest eliminating FEMA?

In a GOP debate last year, Mitt Romney promoted the idea of sending emergency management back to the states, or better yet, the private sector. Now his campaign says he would not abolish FEMA.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pauses during a campaign stop at Avon Lake High School in Avon Lake, Ohio, Monday, Oct. 29.

The day after hurricane Sandy hit the eastern United States, to devastating effect, a political debate is raging over whether Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested last year the elimination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The Romney campaign maintains he did nothing of the kind in the Republican primary debate held on June 13, 2011. Democrats – and the editorial page of The New York Times – insist he did.

Let’s look at the transcript.

The topic under discussion was the role of the federal government, and which functions Washington keeps. Moderator John King turned to Mr. Romney and asked him about disaster relief, following the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., the month before.

“FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role,” Mr. King said. “How do you deal with something like that?”

Romney’s response: “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 even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better.

“Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut – we should ask ourselves the opposite question,” Romney continued. “What should we keep? 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? And those things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in. We cannot ...”

King interjected: “Including disaster relief, though?”

Romney replied: “We cannot – we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

Fast-forward to now. Contacted by the media, the Romney campaign asserts that Romney would not abolish FEMA, but still prefers that states take the lead in disaster response.

“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement to Politico. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

It’s not clear how, under a President Romney, the relationship between FEMA and state governments would change. But in liberal circles, Romney’s statement from last year is all the evidence needed that he would trim government spending and functions to harmful effect.

On Monday, before Sandy engulfed much of the eastern US late in the day, the editorial page of The New York Times slammed Romney’s 2011 statement in “A big storm requires big government.”

“Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency?” the editorial asked. “Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.”

So far the Obama campaign has not taken up this line of attack. That might be risky. At a time of tragedy, Americans have little tolerance for politics.

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