Preparing For Transition

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Each year, National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) holds a midyear Issues forum, typically in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a good opportunity to check on the major issues and challenges confronting emergency management, and since this is a presidential election year, it affords an opportunity for the nation’s state directors of emergency management to interact with representatives of viable presidential campaigns.

Major Issues and Challenges: “Robbing Ebola to Pay Zika”

  • This week, rather than cut elsewhere, the Administration proposed transferring funds from the Ebola appropriation to bolster the Zika effort. This is intended to avoid requesting significant cuts in other programs, and is part of the fundamental conflict in our Congress: fiscal austerity obsessions require that any new spending be accompanied by a corresponding cut, no matter the negative humanitarian, national security or disaster-related outcome.
  • Behind the scenes topics that are driving discussions on Capitol Hill, in the Senate and the House, are a) the high cost to the federal treasury of presidentially declared disasters; b) the obsession with finding cuts to offset those costs, often delaying the funding of recovery to those states – and the cuts proposed often are targeted at programs that are valued by other members of Congress, setting off a partisan battle over priorities. The increasing cost and increasing number of presidential declared disasters has resulted in Congress and its watchdogs establishing tighter criteria for states seeking federal assistance post disaster. More and more we are hearing “there are too many disasters”. Since we do not have the power to stop the earth from moving or the wind from blowing, NEMA must help reconcile these concerns in a way that does not disadvantage states’ capabilities but addresses the rising cost of disasters.
  • Key legislative issues currently in play are proposed cuts by the Administration due to “budget caps” that has resulted in Homeland Security grant programs reductions in the President’s Proposed Budget. Congress may restore many of these funds eventually, but will seek offsetting cuts elsewhere. Negotiated budget “caps” have resulted in proposed Homeland Security Grant funding reductions.
  • Sensible homeland security grant reform, as proposed by NEMA will not occur as long as narrow, parochial interests of other professional associations are placed ahead of the national interest.

Campaigns and One Step Beyond

NEMA forums are characterized by often intense discussions of issues that affect the people of the 50 states and several territories. NEMA has for some time invited senior representatives of current Presidential campaigns to meet in executive session with the state directors: as a Past President I am entitled to join them.

Three campaigns sent representatives. Once nominees are determined, NEMA will work to elevate emergency management issues to the respective transition teams of potential president elects.

The new President will confront many demands and appeals for support from various quarters. The senior representatives from the Presidential campaigns were prepared, displayed knowledge of NEMA’s issues, and were receptive to working with us in a collegial way. All had access to a NEMA issues paper well in advance. All were authorized to speak on behalf of their respective candidate: none showed any reluctance to express the campaigns’ positions. And, below are some observations based on what I heard and gathered in discussions with colleagues:

  • It’s understood that, barring a major event, discussions of natural disaster readiness will not be a voting issue. People will decide on their Presidential preference without much consideration of where the candidates stand on emergency management’s bread and butter issues.
  • Emergency management/homeland security may emerge as a topic should a terrorist attack capture public attention here or around the world – sadly that occurring during a heated campaign might not enhance the prospects of a thoughtful discussion that contributes to solutions. The candidates are generally cognizant that while emergency management views may not get a candidate elected, poor performance in the wake of a disaster could tarnish a Presidency and limit its effectiveness and longevity.

Emergency managers at all levels must promote greater understanding of the importance of a balanced attention to natural disasters and homeland security initiatives. Elected officials need to start planning now how they can most effectively invest their dollars as well as collaborate with their counterparts to ensure transparency, flexibility and accountability even if funding levels decline. Given the prevailing mood among members of Congress about the cost of disasters, and the growing lack of confidence, real or contrived, of the public in government’s ability to function, we must realize this is everyone’s fight: during a disaster we aren’t Republicans or Democrats or Independents or Libertarians or any other element – we are in the end human beings facing a daunting common challenge. That commonality is being sorely tested in our political discourse these days. In the midst of the demagoguery and toxic political rhetoric it remains the obligation of emergency management leaders – to lead.

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