Saturday, July 20, 2024

The recovery from Hurricane Katrina is almost universally a horror. The thing that comes closest to even grim fun is watching the Bush administration and its ideological toughs get stuck in what they were punching at: the tar baby of federal responsibility. The more they struggle, the more they get caught up in it. So despite arriving touting small government, this gang has enlarged it considerably, first by creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, then with its Medicare drug benefit and now by essentially proving, again, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a vital role in protecting the nation.

Thinking state and local governments are going to fulfill the agency’s role by sending help to troubled neighbors (or even farther) means expecting cities and states to have resources and rescue workers expendable enough to send away and do without for lengthy periods. This is unrealistic, and should be especially so to fans of small government, even though they’re the ones espousing such plans. Without a federal response to natural disasters, taxpayers in Cambridge, for instance, would be expected to pay for more police officers, firefighters and equipment than the city needs. They would have to do so even in tight financial times to help in future emergencies in, say, Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, knowing that if they didn’t, the chances of getting emergency help in response are weakened.

That’s a tough sell. It inevitably brings the rational thinker back to the realization that in a country of 50 states and 3.7 million square miles, including Alaska and Hawaii, a patchwork of aid decided by annually revised tax revenue, local need and political expediency might run a distant second to a federal agency whose sole job is to coordinate and implement disaster response.

President Bush wants faith-based initiatives and small government. Reality — or, in Bush’s case, God — seems to be making this goal very difficult to achieve.