WASHINGTON - Whenever there's a major natural disaster, the federal government steps in to help. But that wouldn't necessarily be the case if Mitt Romney got his way. During a 2011 GOP primary debate he said it was "immoral" for the federal government to be spending money on disaster relief when it should be focused on deficit reduction:
First Romney says: "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. 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.
More prosaically, though the Romney campaign was understandably circumspect over the weekend about his spending plans, the fact is that his overall budget requires sharp cuts in everything. The central issue is that Romney wants to cap government spending at 20 percent of GDP while boosting military spending to 4 percent of GDP and leaving Social Security harmless. That means a 34 percent across-the-board cut in other programs according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Unless, that is, Medicare is also exempted from the cuts in which case you'd need a 53 percent cut.
Disaster relief, I would argue, is a great federal program precisely because of the debt issue.
If a storm damages basic physical infrastructure (power lines, bridges) and imperils human life, it would be the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking to suppose that the afflicted area should wait months or years to repair the damage. Ultimately, any place is going to go back to robust wealth creation faster if basic stuff gets fixed up faster. But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects - i.e., the federal government. Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation
Yglesias (mattyglesias) is Slate's business and economics correspondent.