In just about his last act as president, George W. Bush has declared Washington, D.C., a federal disaster area.
No, seriously. I'm not setting up some lame-o punchline here, like we used to do a decade back in the good old Monica days: "President Clinton today declared his pants a federal disaster area," etc. What happened last week was that the Bush administration formally declared a federal emergency in the District of Columbia.
So what was it? An ice storm? A hurricane?
No, it's the inauguration of his successor. The inauguration is scheduled to make landfall on Tuesday and wreak havoc all night long, as Category Five conga lines buckle highways round town, and emergency busboy crews find themselves overwhelmed as they struggle to clear drained champagne flutes. So the mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, put in a request for more federal money, and, apparently, the easiest way to sluice the cash to him no questions asked was for the president to declare a state of emergency in the District and funnel however many extra gazillions he wants through FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I don't know if anybody's ever done that," said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary.
Indeed. One reason why nobody's ever done that before is because a presidential inauguration is not (to be boringly technical about it) an "emergency." It's penciled in well in advance – in this case, so well in advance that for years Democrats have been driving around with "1-20-09" bumper stickers on the back of their Priuses. Emergency-wise, that's the equivalent of Hurricane Dan Rather wrapped around a lamppost in his sou'wester, hanging there in eager anticipation every night for half a decade. Generally speaking, changes of government are only "emergencies" in the livelier banana republics where this week's president-for-life suddenly spots the machete-wielding mob scrambling over the palace walls so nimbly he barely has time to dial the Liberian branch of FEMA and put in a request for extra Portapotties and a rope-line management team.
The proposition that a new federal administration is itself a federal emergency is almost too perfect an emblem of American government in the 21st century. FEMA was created in the 1970s initially to coordinate the emergency response to catastrophic events such as a nuclear attack. But there weren't a lot of those even in the Carter years, so, as is the way with bureaucracies, FEMA just growed like Topsy. In his first year in office, Bill Clinton declared a then-record-setting 58 federal emergencies. By the end of the Nineties, Mother Nature was finding it hard to come up with a meteorological phenomenon that didn't qualify as a federal emergency: Heavy rain in the Midwest? Call FEMA! Light snow in Vermont? FEMA! Fifty-seven under cloudy skies in California? Let those FEMA trailers roll!
The Cato Institute's James Bovard was struck by the plight of Vernon, Conn., a town ravaged in the winter of 1995-96 by, er, slightly more snow than they'd expected. So FEMA sent them a check for $40,023. Vernon had 30,000 people, and its town snow-removal costs that winter were $258,000. "That's just $8.60 per person," Bovard pointed out, "less than a 12-year-old charges to shovel out a driveway after a good snowfall."
So why did they need "federal emergency" aid? Because the town had only budgeted $104,516, and so claimed to be "overwhelmed" by the additional costs. They could have asked the good burghers of Vernon to chip in an extra five bucks apiece. But why bother when FEMA's so eager to give you a warm bath in the federal love nectar? The town government wised up pretty quickly. The next winter, they set the snow-removal budget at just $69,383.
So a "federal emergency" is no longer a nuclear strike on Cleveland or even a Category Three hurricane, but now a snowfall in New England and an inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel. As Mister Incredible shrewdly observes to his kid in "The Incredibles," when everybody's special, nobody is. Likewise, when everything's an emergency, nothing is: We live in a permanent state of routine emergency.
The metastasization of FEMA teaches several lessons – the first and most obvious being that any new government program, agency or entitlement will always outgrow whatever narrow purpose it was created for. Which is why we small-government types are wary of creating any new ones in the first place. Thus, an itsy-bitsy bit of inconsequential government tinkering on the periphery of the mortgage market expanded to the point where federally mandated home loans to the uncreditworthy came close to collapsing not just the U.S. property market but the global financial system.
If you'd suggested in the Seventies a new federal agency to cope with municipal snow removal in Connecticut, you'd have been laughed out the room. But, with government, mission creep isn't a bug but the defining feature. In mid-September, the "bailout" was a once-in-a-lifetime emergency measure to save the planet. A mere four months later, it's the new baseline. If your congressman's lousy boondoggle has got six zeroes on the end, it's an earmark: Boooooooooo! If it's got 12 zeroes, it's a "stimulus": Hurrah!
I'm not worried about "change" so much as creep. The Obama administration doesn't have to do anything terribly transformative – overnight socialization of health care, etc. In fact, it doesn't have to do anything at all. It could just sit there, and America would still drift remorselessly, incrementally left, inch by inch. Eventually, you reach a tipping point: At some point in the next four years, we will reach a situation where the majority of Americans pay no federal income tax but are able to vote themselves more goodies from those who do. The most basic of conservative principles is that if you reward bad behavior you get more of it. We now have a government offering trillion-dollar rewards for bad behavior to the financial system, to the housing market, to the auto unions and to individual voters. And the heirs to those Connecticut town meetings that Tocqueville regarded as the best form of government ever devised by man now underbudget their snow-removal costs, secure in the knowledge that the Feds will pick up the tab.
We're now told that the problem with the last New Deal is that it was too small, so Obama's new New Deal has to be even bigger. That's like telling New Orleans that the problem is they're not far enough below sea level so they need to dig deeper. If Washington is now a federal disaster area, it would be nice to think of Barney Frank and the gang waving from the roof of the Capitol until they can be evacuated somewhere safe, like one of the outlying South Sandwich Islands or Charley Rangel's vacation property in the Dominican Republic. But, alas, Washington is one of those disaster relief cases, where they get the relief, and the rest of us get the disaster. As the incoming president has said, this is the worst crisis since …oh, at least the great Vernon, Conn., snowfall of 1996. To facilitate the stimulus, I urge him to declare every American his own individual federal disaster area.