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|The federal role in a disaster|
In 1887, President Grover Cleveland was faced with a conundrum when a devastating drought struck Texas.
In an effort to ease the suffering of farmers who had watched their crops wither without rain for weeks, Congress appropriated $10,000—about $2 million in today's money— to purchase seed grain.
Cleveland vetoed the bill, giving Congress this explanation:
"I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit...The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to
relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood."
Can you imagine a president saying those words today?
Louisiana is no stranger to disaster — whether it's an Act of God, man-made or the federal government lending a helping hand.
Now that the Deepwater Horizon well is capped, we have the luxury to step back, catch our breath and muse about things such as what the role of the federal government should be when disaster strikes.
We live in a time when the federal government wants to increasingly have a hand in almost every aspect of our lives. No matter if the issue is where we get our healthcare or what kind of cars we drive or where and how we get the fuel to put in those cars, there seems to be a federal bureaucrat around to complicate things.
With such an aggressive entity eager to micro-manage our lives, it's hard to fight off the urge to tell the federal government to take a hike when it wants to involve itself in any problem —even one as large as the Gulf oil spill.
There is good reason to be skeptical. Give the feds a disaster and they can always make it worse.
The Coast Guard keeping barges needed to clean oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico docked while life-jackets were counted is a small reminder why the federal government isn't always what you want on your side in a disaster.
The moratorium enacted in response to the oil spill — poised to harm Louisiana more than the spill itself— is a bigger one.
To carry the point further, the name FEMA is probably more despised than the names Katrina, Rita and Gustav in Louisiana.
With a track record so bad, how could any sane person want to federal government to get involved in the next disaster we, undoubtedly, will have here in the Bayou State?
I believe, however, that there is a role for the federal government in things like the BP oil spill disaster —a role for big things. Otherwise, why should we even have a federal government?
The caveat is that whatever involvement there should be in things too big for states to handle alone should be kept with-in certain boundaries—those outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
The feds should play a regulatory role with off-shore drilling, which has the potential to cause an economy crippling crisis if left unchecked.
Such a role can be found in the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."
Crude oil that is mined in our seas, often by foreign companies like BP, and is distributed through many states is regulated in compliance with the Commerce Clause and should be.
Regulation, while needed, isn't perfect.
BP, which has given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years — Obama receiving the biggest share in 2008—has racked up numerous citations.
Two BP refineries alone accounted for 97 percent of all violations over the last three years, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. Of those violations, 760 were classified as "egregious willful" by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The rest of refineries operating in the U.S. combined had only one such violation.
Maybe it would be better for Congress to contract out regulating off-shore drilling to a private company. I'm sure that they would find a way to corrupt it, but at least it might be a little harder to do.
So the federal government can regulate big oil without stepping on the Constitution, but what about after disaster strikes with something like the BP oil spill or an Act of God?
I believe there is a role there, as well.
If you doubt me, take the word of Freidrich Hayek, one of the 20th Century's greatest classic liberal —read libertarian—thinkers.
"Where ever communal action can mitigate disaster against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provisions for the catastrophe, such communal action should, undoubtfully, be taken," Hayek wrote in his landmark treatises, "The Road to Serfdom."
The problem, as Cleveland observed, is that there are no provisions in the Constitution to lend a helping hand.
The Founding Fathers were smart, however, by making a way for the Constitution to change. Changing the Constitution —something usually done by activist judges these days,—should be done by Congress through the amendment process.
Maybe it's time to create an amendment to allow aid to states facing a catastrophic disaster that reaches a certain threshold in money and, or lives lost.
In the current climate, in which the political class eagerly throws tax payers money at anything they think might earn them a vote somewhere down the line, that's not likely to happen.
There are few Grover Clevelands in Washington these days.
Maybe if there were more the federal government would be better at managing disasters rather than just managing to make things worse.