FEMA Funding: How The Press Missed The Story

The last-minute Senate deal announced last night to avoid a government shutdown, and to keep FEMA fully funded, ends -- for now -- the latest Congressional stalemate. The usually commonplace practice of providing FEMA with billions of additional funding in the face of epic natural disasters had flared into a major budget controversy in recent weeks

Coming on the heels of the debt ceiling crisis from this summer, it looked like the logjam over FEMA might be the latest example of Congressional brinksmanship between Democrats and Republicans, since they couldn't agree on how the pay for FEMA's billions in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Before the story recedes, it's worth examining how the press covered the controversy and specifically how the press often looked away from the latest radical turn taken by Republicans. Indeed, the GOP tried to fundamentally change the way disaster relief legislation was funded -- and passed -- in Congress. That fact was central to the standoff and that's what sparked the stalemate. Yet in so much of the news coverage, that fact was omitted, which changed the entire dynamics of the story.

Instead of the story being about how Republicans were embracing a radical new legislative initiative, and doing it the expense of disaster victims in need of government aid, the story was presented as more partisan sniping.

In reality, the press did Republicans, and their Tea Party activists, a favor by dumbing down the FEMA story and refusing to acknowledge the party's increasingly extremist nature.

Look at how the Associated Press recently stressed how both sides were to blame for the frustrating stalemate:

Just a week away from a possible government shutdown, lawmakers boxed themselves into a new budget impasse Friday. With Congress' approval ratings already at an all-time low, a tit-for-tat over disaster aid left Republicans and Democrats _ and the House and Senate _ in a faceoff that's all too familiar to millions of Americans.

See, the FEMA controversy was just the latest example of partisan tit-for-tat, according to the AP. But that simply was not true. If the disaster relief bill had been funded the way every other natural disaster relief bill has been funded for decades, FEMA would have its money last week. Instead, Republicans, preaching austerity, demanded radical changes in the FEMA funding process by demanding disaster costs be offset by immediate spending cuts. (Republicans, by the way, made no such budgetary demands when voting to spend nearly $50 billion to rebuild Iraq.)

Faced with that development, the press turned around and informed news consumers that both sides were the blame for the FEMA holdup. (Incredibly, the Washington Post reported it was Democrats who decided to “pick a fight” over disaster relief funding.)

On Monday, the New York Times reported on how disaster relief victims in Pennsylvania were fed up with the FEMA bickering and just wanted the federal aid to arrive in their communities. (i.e. “While they are rattling on among themselves down there in Washington, people are suffering.”) Nowhere though, did the Times article clearly explain that the reason FEMA funding had stalled was because Republicans were insisting on unprecedented, budget-cutting terms for the relief.

Last week, an on-air CNN reporter noted that traditionally FEMA funding “is not something that's a political hot potato,” but that it suddenly had become one. The reporter though, never really explained why it had become a political hot potato. (Answer: It was a deliberate Republican strategy.)

Time and again in recent days we saw FEMA reports that simply glossed over the crucial context:

--“House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last week said lawmakers should offset disaster funds, given the nation's budgetary crisis.” [The Hill]

--“In addition to the disagreement over how much money these agencies should get, House Republican leaders are insisting that the $1 billion in their bill that those agencies would get right away to cover recovery costs be offset with $1.5 billion in cuts to a loan program that helps automakers retool their operations to make more fuel-efficient cars.” [CNN]

--“The Senate has approved some $6.9 billion in FEMA funding, the House over $3.5 billion, but House Republicans insist that the FEMA spending be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget and Senate Democrats refuse to go along.” [NPR]

In each of those dispatches, the Republican demand that disaster relief be paid for by making cuts to the federal budget was simply reported as fact. The reports all omitted any mention that the demand represented a new and dramatic break from how Congress traditionally responded to catastrophic natural disasters.

Some news reports provided a portion of context by acknowledging the Democratic claim that current offset demands in the disaster relief bill were unprecedented [emphasis added]:

Democrats objected to cutting spending for disaster funding, calling it unprecedented and politicizing emergency relief for Americans. [CNN]


Democrats say it's unprecedented and and unfair to require spending cuts to accompany badly needed emergency aid. [Associated Press]

Very few news outlets, however, came right out and stated the facts. The Los Angeles Times proved to be a lonely exception:

GOP leaders say they want new money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster fund to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, an unprecedented approach to disaster aid that is creating a political stalemate as FEMA is about to run out of money.

Congressional historian Norm Ornstein confirmed that the Republican approach broke new ground. “Eric Cantor threw this new grenade in the mix where he said for the first time that we're going to offset disaster relief,” Ornstein told a reporter last week.

It's crucial that the press accurately describe how the government functions, especially at a time of a looming crisis, such as a federal shut down. And to paint the recent FEMA controversy as Democrats-and-Republicans-just-can't-get-along was wildly inaccurate because it omitted crucial information that voters deserved to know: Republicans were trying to discard decades' worth of precedent and alter the way the government pays for natural disaster relief.

Botton line: Once again, the timid D.C. press corps was reluctant to call Republicans out as radical.

And the GOP knows it.