Giving the federal government the power to deploy troops domestically without restraint is a line that no American who values freedom should want to cross.

A Disaster for Federalism

Given the suffering and anarchy that followed Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast, it’s tempting to look for scapegoats. For politicians on the receiving end of the post-disaster finger-pointing, it’s even more tempting to offer a laundry list of new plans , reforms and investigations.

It’s into this mousetrap baited with good intentions that President Bush has blithely wandered.

In his national address outlining his plan to bring New Orleans to sea level by filling it with cash, President Bush mentioned a proposal that is only now beginning to attract the attention it deserves.

Specifically, the President suggested that the active-duty military should have a more central and direct roll in responding to future disasters.  At present, active-duty troops are barred under federal law from serving in law enforcement roles with certain limited exceptions. And federal officials can’t take charge of disaster relief efforts without permission from the governor of the affected state.

The President’s impulse is understandable. It was only when federal troops began to arrive in New Orleans and the great grey ships of the U.S. Navy tied alongside the city’s ruined port and the orange choppers of the Coast Guard filled the skies that the desperate situation in the beleaguered city began to improve. And only after Coast Guard Admiral Allen and cigar-chomping Army Lt. General Honore seemed to take charge did everyone agree that the worst was probably over. The general perception ― carefully managed by the White House ― was that the pros had arrived and all was going to be put right soon.

But changing the law and ordering the military to take charge in future disasters is not a panacea. It’s a mistake.

Our military is the best in the world because it stays focused on its mission ― fighting and winning wars. To be sure, many of the skills and much of the equipment that make the military so effective at war-fighting also prepare it to help with disaster relief. But formally adding a new mission to the military’s dossier would only distract it unnecessarily from training men and women to fight. And with troops fighting for our freedom all around the world, any distraction from the military’s primary missions will cost more brave young Americans their lives. As retired Maj. General Bruce Lawlor observed to the Christian Science Monitor, “If you create within the Department of Defense a primary mission to respond to these sorts of events, you’re creating a huge additional burden. The focus begins to shift [from war fighting], and that’s not good.”

In addition, experts say that federalizing disaster relief isn’t a good solution. William Waugh, an emergency management expert at Georgia State University, told the Dallas Morning News, “Centralizing and decision-making in Washington have created a lot of problems. … I think we’re trending in an extremely bad direction. If disaster response becomes increasingly federal, it will become increasingly dysfunctional.”

Likewise, University of Washington Professor Peter May said, “Centralized sounds good … but the reality is that the National Guard and Army don’t have the kind of ties with local organizations that ultimately deliver lots of service, your nonprofits, churches, humanitarian organizations. Those types of linkages get built up over time, in local communities.”

These experts agree that local first responders ― police, fire, EMS, local governments and local organizations ― have to continue to take the lead, with support from state and federal officials and agencies. If the locals are overwhelmed, National Guard troops, under the command of the Governor, are empowered to provide assistance with law enforcement functions. And if the National Guard is incapacitated or insufficient, federal troops can be pressed into service and temporarily granted police powers at the request of the Governor.

But we don’t need to rewrite any laws to adopt this sensible system. It’s the system we already have. You see, the problem with getting federal troops into Louisiana wasn’t a legal impediment. It was a political conflict between state and federal authorities.

And that brings us to the real danger of the President’s proposal.

The President’s suggestion was made to address the problem as he perceived it ― namely, that the federal government was legally prevented from simply ignoring state and local authorities and deploying federal troops whenever, however and for whatever purpose the feds wanted.

But that’s not the way our system works. The concept of federalism ― that states have certain responsibilities and the federal government has certain responsibilities ― is one that Americans value. And with good reason. Federalism provides a crucial limitation on the power of the national government and protects our individual rights and liberties. Giving the federal government the power to deploy troops domestically without restraint is a line that no American who values freedom should want to cross.

Now, let’s be clear. No one is suggesting that this President is plotting to make the U.S. Army a domestic occupation force. But this is one of those times when protecting principle is more important than embracing a politically-motivated proposal that fails to address any real problem.

Instead of once again trying to close the barn door after the horse is long gone, the President needs to keep his eye on the ball. First, ensure that the military is properly focused on its real mission ― to prosecute the War on Terror and defend American freedom from foreign threats. Second, fix FEMA so that it can do its job effectively ― to support local first responders and coordinate emergency supplies and services following a disaster. And finally, drop the proposal to put federal troops in charge of disaster recovery.

Cops should be cops and soldiers should be soldiers.

October 13, 2005
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