Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney declined on Tuesday to discuss whether he would make changes to federal disaster relief.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will assume a prominent role as the country begins to sort through the wreckage left in Hurricane Sandy's wake. At a hurricane relief event in Ohio on Tuesday, Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters about whether he would eliminate or diminish FEMA.
There is some context for the questions. During the Republican presidential primaries, amid a zeal for scaling back government, Romney advocated delegating the agency's functions to states. Romney has offered a similar proposal for Medicaid, which he supports returning to states in the form of block grants.
"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," Romney said at the time. "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?"
The Romney campaign issued a statement on Tuesday clarifying that Romney believes FEMA has a role to play.
“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
Still, given the deep cuts in discretionary spending that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget calls for, it is plausible that a President Romney could sign off on reduced disaster relief spending.
Both campaigns are taking pains to avoid the appearance of politicizing the storm, so the FEMA issue has not attracted the swift back-and-forth that has characterized much of the campaign. Romney billed his Ohio appearance as a "storm relief" event unrelated to the campaign.
That offers a contrast with the response last year to Hurricane Irene, when Republicans and the White House sparred over finding money for recovery efforts.