WASHINGTON — There's nothing like a natural disaster to test the depth of politicians' preference for small government.
And so it turns out that after Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast, Mitt Romney is far more supportive of the government agency in charge of coordinating disaster relief. Only last year, as Romney hewed to the right while battling for the GOP nomination, he seemed to downplay the federal government's role in disaster response.
"Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," Romney said at a debate last June. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
Asked by moderator John King of CNN whether that would include disaster relief, Romney said: "We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids."
Now, a week before Election Day, after of a massive disaster, Romney's campaign is reassuring voters that his administration wouldn't leave disaster victims in the lurch. The public's attention is locked on the devastation caused by Sandy at a time when Romney and President Barack Obama are locked in a close presidential campaign. With Obama heavily involved in getting federal funds to those in trouble, the Romney campaign moved quickly to reassure the public it supports a strong program of storm relief.
"I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters," Romney said in a statement supplied by his campaign Wednesday. "As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."
Wednesday's statement came after the candidate ducked a spate of opportunities Tuesday to personally clarify his position and the statement essentially endorsed the current disaster aid system.
But what the campaign wouldn't do is say whether a President Romney would insist that help for disaster victims be funded by cutting other programs in the federal budget, as many conservative Republicans insist.
Running mate Paul Ryan is squarely on the side of cutting other spending to pay for disasters. Earlier this year, he tried but failed to scrap a new system, established in the 2011 debt ceiling-deficit cuts deal, that boosts disaster spending and budgets help for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods before they occur. House leaders rebuffed him, siding with Appropriations Committee members of both parties who like the new system.
What Ryan proposed is that when disaster strikes, lawmakers first scour the rest of the budget for savings to pay for rebuilding homes, roads and schools and helping small businesses.
That's easier said than done, especially since it can mean delays in getting aid out the door. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina — and perhaps Sandy — can prove so costly that it's difficult to find cuts in other programs big enough to pay for the aid.
As has been shown time after time — especially as tornadoes and hurricanes rip through politically conservative states — even the sturdiest tea party supporters become fans of government when it's doling out money to storm victims for motel rooms and other temporary housing or helping with house repairs.
That role fell Tuesday to New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who was effusive in his praise for Obama and the federal government's initial response.
"The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA," Christie said on NBC's "Today."
It'll take several weeks to come up with damage cost estimates to determine whether FEMA's main disaster account will need more money.
FEMA has enough cash available to deal with immediate disaster relief, almost $8 billion, thanks to a six-month government funding bill passed in September and the new disaster financing system.