August 28, 2011; Source: National Journal via | From North Carolina to New England, governments and nonprofits were consumed this past weekend with preparations for the potential damage of Hurricane Irene. Governors and mayors were evacuating residents and the president was in contact with federal officials preparing for the worst. In the midst of all of this, the Republican Party’s libertarian avatar, presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas), called for “dismantling FEMA and minimizing the government’s role in responding to future storms.”

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Administration, brought to near collapse in the Bush Administration as it flubbed, to put it charitably, the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. By all accounts the agency has improved and professionalized since its Gulf Coast debacle. Yet Paul told the press that FEMA “has one of the worst reputations for a bureaucracy ever. Anyone who wants to defend this agency, they have a tough argument to make.” Is Paul’s analysis “Once a (bad) bureaucracy, always a (bad) bureaucracy?” Is it that no matter what management improvements have been made since President Bush slapped the director of FEMA on the back and said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” FEMA must die? 

Nonprofits engaged in disaster relief work with FEMA on a regular basis, delivering emergency food and shelter, providing assistance to alleviate hardship and suffering, and developing and implementing hazard mitigation strategies. FEMA plays a dual role of coordinating assistance as well as providing direct financial support. But libertarians blame FEMA’s bureaucracy, not the failings of its then-director Michael Brown, for the agency’s poor performance during Hurricane Katrina. 

The ombudsman for the Washington Post, Patrick B. Pexton, was compelled last week to address readers’ complaints that the flagship Beltway newspaper was ignoring Paul despite his robust second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll. Pexton agreed that more needed to be written about Paul, given his vibrant electoral support among a minority of Republicans. But he suggested that rather than covering horse-race stories, the Ron Paul phenomenon merited in-depth exploration of what a libertarian really is, how much of a libertarian Ron Paul really is, and what his policy recommendations would mean in specifics. Pexton wrote, “[Ron Paul] wants to abolish the federal income, estate, capital gains and gasoline taxes, which together make up about half of the U.S. government’s annual revenue. Which half of the government would he eliminate?”

That’s the kind of relevant, analytical question that nonprofit readers might want to know the answer to as well. Would a libertarian president unburden the nonprofit sector from the yoke of government bureaucracy, or would he or she starve nonprofits of the resources they require to deliver the programs and services needed by their constituents?—Rick Cohen