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Emergency management is a critical federal program, if for no other reason than because of budget constraints. If states were expected to assume the full costs of emergency management, because they are bound by balanced budget rules, the money would have to come out of education or health care or some other public service. But the federal government can generate funds for natural disasters, use its ultra-low borrowing costs, and provide them to states so they don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

At least, that’s what every serious person who wants to lead the nation believes, except for the Mitt Romney who ran in the 2012 Republican primary. And what the above video shows you more than anything is how unbelievably right-wing that primary turned out to be. John King had recently visited Joplin, Missouri, then suffering from a catastrophic tornado, and asked Romney about federal emergency management programs:

During a CNN debate at the height of the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked, in the context of the Joplin disaster and FEMA’s cash crunch, whether the agency should be shuttered so that states can individually take over responsibility for disaster response.

“Absolutely,” he said. “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 the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” debate moderator John King asked Romney.

“We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney replied. “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.”

The Romney campaign responded to Ryan Grim, who dug this up, by saying that “Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters.” But that requires a federal response, or else you have the death spiral I previously described, where emergency response must get paid for by taking money out of other areas of the state budget. That’s if primary Romney doesn’t get his greatest wish, to privatize disaster response.

The primaries have been forgotten except for the memes, but Romney was considered the most moderate and electable of those on the stage. And he routinely said things like this, that we should eliminate FEMA and either let the states handle things on their own, or privatize emergency management.

Even if you believe that primary Romney does not equal “the real Romney,” if such a life form can be found, his budget mandates simply have to lead to cuts to FEMA, through a cap on federal spending at 20% of GDP and a floor on defense spending at 4% of GDP. Romney has never exempted FEMA from the rest of the budget, so it would have to be part of the 34-53% cut to all non-defense programs, under his budget rules. And we’re in a period where we will, because of inattention to climate change, need to spend more on emergency management, not less.

David Dayen

David Dayen