Hurricane Sandy and the politics of disaster funding

In a break with recent history, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has enough money to cover the initial response to Hurricane Sandy. But that doesn't mean FEMA is out of the woods -- and it certainly doesn't mean the storm will be an exception to the politics of disaster funding.

The agency faces about $878 million in cuts if lawmakers fail to avoid the looming sequester, according to an estimate the White House provided to Congress last month. Members of both parties have said they hope to prevent the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts -- which are slated to take effect in January -- but the path to an agreement is far from clear.

If past is prologue, the FEMA budget will soon be the subject of partisan finger-pointing even as President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are holding their fire for now.

The GOP has already done its best to tie Obama to the sequester, despite the fact that Republicans in Congress voted for the measure. For their part, Democrats have are seizing on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy to use Romney's past words against him in a bid to suggest he's in favor of shifting the burden to the states. In a Republican primary debate last year, the former Massachusetts governor said states should have more control over disaster relief, including the possibility of private-sector involvement.

The left is also taking aim at Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose budget proposal doesn't specifically mention disaster relief but includes considerable cuts to domestic discretionary spending.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters this week the agency has $3.6 billion to pay for the federal response to Sandy -- though it is too early to tell whether additional funding will be needed when the total cost of the storm is known. That's a contrast with last summer, when the agency found itself cash-starved during Hurricane Irene and forced to suspend some payments related to previous disasters in order to cover the gap. That led to a nasty fight in Congress over whether additional funds should be offset with cuts elsewhere.

Recent history is rife with examples of how responses to federal disasters can taint political reputations. Before critics excoriated the administration of former President George W. Bush for a slow federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they blasted former President George H.W. Bush for his administration's handling of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which struck just months ahead of the presidential election.

The lessons of previous disasters do not seem to be lost on the president, who has canceled campaign events and made several public statements on Sandy. His swift response earned him praise from leaders of affected states, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a top surrogate for Romney.