“What If” – Some Thoughts for Late Summer

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Both major political parties have settled upon their respective presidential tickets. It seems reasonable to gauge the impact that a victory for either major party candidate might have on homeland security and emergency management disciplines.

Homeland Security may prove to be a key “voting issue” in this election. Do not expect Emergency Management issues to be elevated for discussion unless a major natural disaster (a’ la’ “Sandy” in 2012) occurs during the general election. Political debate on homeland security issues is not likely to be particularly informative for most voters, possibly excluding behavioral scientists and clinical psychologists.

If Hillary Clinton prevails…

1) James Lee Witt, FEMA Administrator under President Bill Clinton dramatically changed the culture and the attitude of FEMA in his tenure: FEMA became more visibly responsive in natural disaster events. He instituted the proactive and widely praised Project Impact initiative that united community public and private interests in an effort to identify and mitigate known hazards. Designed, and initially sold as a nonpartisan initiative (it was), it died a partisan death. A similar initiative resurrected in a new Clinton Administration aimed at encouraging grass roots collaboration among local interests could occur.

2) Hillary Clinton throughout her career and certainly as a Senator from New York has an understanding of the role of FEMA and DHS. But, within both the White House and Congress, there have been rumblings that “there have been too many disaster assistance requests” from the states. Congress often withholds or delays federal assistance even after a disaster is proclaimed, searching for “offsets” to the costs against the federal budget. The “offsets” typically consist of proposed cuts in social programs or so-called “entitlements” that many find unconscionable. It’s not clear how a Clinton Administration in 2017 – 2021 would resolve such conflicts with an irrationally partisan Congress oriented to obstructing anything the Executive proposes. The makeup of Congress in 2017 may answer that question.

3) Homeland Security: Although natural hazards remain more potentially destructive to life and the economy and the environment, fear of terrorism always dominates. Certainly the Bush Administration virtually ignored natural hazards prior to the exposure, during the Katrina/Rita episode of the pattern of negligence on the part the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security, under Michael Chertoff. Who becomes Homeland Security Secretary and FEMA Administrator (for either candidate) will be important; how the two are allowed to function in tandem may be more important. Of particular interest will be the line of demarcation they establish between counter terrorism and natural disasters, and where homeland security and emergency management clearly intersect, as in climate change issues that have both immediate and long term consequences for homeland security as well as emergency management.

As a former Senator, and former Secretary of State, let alone an active first lady of Arkansas and the US, Clinton is likely to have clarity with respect to homeland security and emergency management issues. Whether that experience, or her familiarity with the list of disasters that have occurred produces effective dialogue and collaboration with the local and state homeland security /emergency management community, per the Obama Administration, or less meaningful dialogue and more top-down direction (per the Bush Administration years) remains to be seen.

If Donald Trump prevails…

Nowhere in the Republican platform is there discussion of emergency management issues, nor is there much of a guide as to what a Trump Administration might do. The only comments I have heard from a senior Trump official in closed session suggests that:

1. States would be expected to put more of their resources on the table and rely less on the federal government; A Trump Administration’s priorities may not allow for much analysis of where to place, or prioritize funding emergency management personnel and their resource requirements.

2. Homeland Security will dominate his public agenda. Most likely that agenda would emphasize the obligation to protect the nation by securing its borders, keeping terrorists and drug dealers “out” and deporting millions of people already here, regardless of their personal conduct or national loyalties. Funding this initiative will be cast as a homeland security requirement. When new administrations launch such initiatives, the funding must come from somewhere, and annual funding streams like emergency management’s primary federal source, Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) might seem a pretty inviting target (there have been attempts to zero it out before). And, calling on the states to fund natural hazard efforts on its own dime is not an unheard of tactic.

3. That senior campaign official suggested that Trump’s Administration would “work closely” with the professional associations that represent and advocate for emergency management issues to understand our issues and to resolve problems. “Knowing what you do not know” is something that that Trump representative suggested his team would bring to the table. If so, a Trump Administration’s designated homeland security and emergency management leaders could conceivably collaborate with local and state homeland security and emergency management professionals to develop a shared approach. A guy can hope.

To sum up: For emergency managers, the challenges will remain the same whichever candidate assumes the Presidency. Emergency managers and their spokespersons still will have the burden of communicating with the winning team, advocating for constructive attention to our issues, and tending to the business of protecting lives, the economy and yes, the environment in their jurisdictions. And we’ll need revenue streams to maintain and enhance our efforts. Our requirements will compete against other pressing priorities; transitions and those first few months are tricky in the best of circumstances. Our business is consequence management: and elections do have consequences. Stay tuned.

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