How Conservative Governors End up Accepting Federal Disaster Assistance

Authored By 
Andy Horowitz
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
January 7, 2013

“This is why the American people hate Congress,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lashed out on Tuesday, after the House of Representatives refused to appropriate funding for Hurricane Sandy relief before the end of the 2012 session. The conservative governor now has completed his 180-degree transformation from one of the country’s most prominent critics of federal government intervention, to one of its loudest voices begging for robust federal help.

Christie’s comments this week were a new chapter in what’s becoming a long story of how Hurricane Sandy is influencing national politics.

In November, Hurricane Sandy’s storm tide swept up what had been little-noticed statements Governor Mitt Romney made back in June 2011 about the Federal Emergency Management Agency and dropped them into the final days of the long presidential campaign. At a Republican debate, Governor Romney had implied that he would eliminate federal responsibility for disaster relief. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states,” he said, “that’s the right direction.” In the last week of the campaign, reporters hounded Governor Romney (asking him 14 times, by one count) to clarify his position on federal funding for FEMA. Disaster relief – and political leadership in general – demands decisive answers about who is entitled to what kind of government help. President Barack Obama was already ahead in the polls before Sandy, but Governor Romney’s refusal to respond to the question sent an unsettling message to the millions of his potential constituents suffering the effects of a major storm.

Over the last century, Americans have demanded an increasingly robust federal role in disaster response – that’s the basic trend I study as an ISPS Policy Fellow. On Slate, I’ve posted a piece on Louisiana Governor John McKeithen, an apostle of “states’ rights” who, in the wake of 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, saw the light with regard to federal assistance. Hurricane Sandy brought Governor Christie to a similar conversion. Mitt Romney, though, got blown away, stranded on the wrong side of history.