Spoiler Alert: This post goes into detail on one of the plotlines from the third season of House of Cards, which was released this past weekend on Netflix.
During the third season of Washington favorite House of Cards, President Frank Underwood finds himself in need of a quick $3 billion to fund America Works, his proposed federally subsidized jobs program. He reviews the federal budget and sets his sights on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). In true Underwoodian fashion, legality, propriety, and prudence be damned.
In a particularly wonk-tastic scene, President Underwood meets with the White House council to obtain their legal opinion on whether or not he’s got the authority to declare unemployment – with its attendant ill effects on health, income, and society as whole - a disaster under the Stafford Act. His lawyers agree that he probably does, as the law stipulates that the determination of what constitutes a disaster is left up to the president’s discretion. They note, however, that he’s bound to be challenged promptly through the courts. He predictably doesn't care.
Soon thereafter, the President pays a visit to his technically skilled but politically outmatched FEMA administrator to strong arm him into cooperation. After protesting in vain that a Category 3 hurricane can’t be compared to unemployment from a disaster standpoint, the administrator capitulates. The next task is to find a pliable chief executive of a state or local government, as Presidential disaster declarations are only granted subsequent to a governor’s request for federal assistance. Luckily for President Underwood, the mayor of Washington, DC proves more than willing to request assistance for the unemployment “disaster” plaguing his city. In the end, Frank gets his $$, and a pilot for America Works.
The Stafford Act in the Real World
The Robert T. Stafford Emergency Relief and Disaster Assistance Act is the primary legal mechanism by which the Federal government provides funds to local, state, and tribal governments to support disaster response and relief efforts. As noted in a 2014 Congressional Research Service report on the DRF: “The DRF functions as a reserve for potential, future incidents, as well as an account to pay for ongoing projects to recover from past disasters.” Sarah Kliff over at Vox has a great summary of how the Stafford Act fits into the plot of House of Cards. Briefly, the real-life DRF currently has a balance of roughly $11 billion. The majority of its biggest ticket expenditures have come in response to natural disasters, and specifically major hurricanes, which are unique in that they can rapidly devastate large swaths of the US. As frequently noted by preparedness researchers, the rate of Presidential disaster declarations has been increasing since the late 80’s.
As Ms. Kliff notes, it’s highly unlikely that a President will ever attempt to “Underwood” the DRF. But the fictional President’s gambit does point to a real world concern, namely, keeping pots of emergency funds intact can be a difficult proposition. There is a temptation to borrow from, or “raid” these accounts for uses other than what congressional appropriators intended. For example, in 2010, legislators transferred $2 billion from the BioShield Special Reserve Fund (SRF) to fund advanced development of medical countermeasures. While this transfer was in no way as legally or operationally problematic as the Underwood raid of the DRF, it did arguably run counter to the spirit of the SRF, which was intended to provide a signal to industry that the public sector was committed to purchasing medicines and vaccines for which no other viable market exists.
The SRF and DRF are two examples of critical shock absorbers that enhance national preparedness and enable resilience from catastrophic events. So - to echo FEMA - hands off, President Underwood!