The Contemporary Presidency : Presidents Profiting from Disasters: Evidence of Presidential Distributive Politics

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    The Contemporary Presidency

    Presidents Profiting from Disasters: Evidence ofPresidential Distributive Politics

    NICHOLAS R. STRAMPUniversity of Washington

    In what ways do presidents engage in distributive politics? I study the effects of presi-dential electoral politics on the federal governments financial response to disasters. SpecificallyI ask whether swing states or safe states are more likely to receive additional disaster aid throughpresidentially ordered increases in the federal reimbursement rate for specific disasters. I examinefour potential political factors affecting this distribution: swing states versus safe states, apresidents base states versus the opposing partys base states, the presence of co-partisan presidentsand governors, and the proximity of the next presidential election. I find that the effects vary byadministration, with Bill Clinton not appearing to make partisan decisions in this way, whilehis successors include these factors when making the decisions. These findings demonstrate thepresence of partisan political calculations in the distribution of disaster aid and also highlightdifferences in the ways power is handled in different presidential administrations.

    Large areas of northern Oklahoma were hit by severe storms and flooding in thefirst two weeks of June 2008. Property damage was estimated to total more than $759million, an astounding $198 for every resident of Oklahoma.1 That same summerMissouri also experienced severe storms and flooding. Property damage totaled $17million, or about $3 per capita. Crop damage totaled an additional $58 million, bringingthe total damage to roughly $14 per capita. Counties in both states were declared to be

    1. Per capita damage is recognized in this field as the standard for assessing the economic impact ofa disaster on a state.

    Nicholas R. Stramp is a graduate fellow at the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the Universityof Washington. His research focuses on executive decision making as well as the policy-making process at both the federaland state levels.

    AUTHORS NOTE: The development of this article has benefited from comments and other assistance provided byJohn Wilkerson, Peter May, Chris Adolph, Matt Barreto, Becca Thorpe, Hannah Walker, Emily Gade, Jeremy Dashiell,and Kassra Oskooii.

    Presidential Studies Quarterly 43, no. 4 (December) 839 2013 Center for the Study of the Presidency

  • federal disaster areas by President George W. Bush, making affected jurisdictionseligible for federal reimbursement of 75% for eligible recovery and rebuilding expenses.President Bush increased the federal cost share for Missouri to 90% of eligible costs a fewweeks after the flooding while Oklahoma did not receive this extra assistance.

    President Bushs decision to increase the federal reimbursement percentage sent anextra $8 million to Missouri. Why did Missouri receive more favorable treatment thanOklahoma? The Oklahoma storms had a much greater financial impact on the state,and they definitely could have used the additional assistance they would have receivedin reimbursement at the 90% level. Partisan politics provides a plausible explanation.Missouri was widely expected to be a pivotal swing state in that falls presidentialelection, and this proved true with only 3,903 votes separating John McCain and BarackObama. There was no danger of Republicans losing Oklahoma, which McCain ended upcarrying with a 31% margin over Obama.

    I study the effects of presidential electoral politics on the federal governmentsfinancial response to disasters. Specifically I ask whether states supportive of the presidentor swing states are more likely to receive additional disaster aid through presidentiallyordered increases in the federal reimbursement rate after specific disasters. To answer thisquestion I construct an original data set including information about presidential deci-sions regarding disaster aid for 945 disasters spanning 19 years and three presidentialadministrations (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama). I find that presidents are morelikely to send additional aid to swing states and most significantly that the presidents inthis study used their power in different ways, likely due in part to contrasting electoralstrategies. These findings demonstrate the presence of partisan political calculations inthe distribution of disaster aid, a power delegated to the president by Congress preciselyto avoid such occurrences.

    This article begins with a theoretical overview of distributive politics and theexecutive branch. Two theories are borrowed from the congressional literature as ways inwhich policy makers may wield policy power in a partisan way. Swing voter theoryexpects policy makers to focus on swing states while coalition maintenance expects policymakers to focus on rewarding their base states as a means of ensuring high turnout.Additionally, the impact of co-partisan presidents and governors, as well as proximity ofthe next presidential election, are tested as additional partisan factors with the potentialto influence the distribution of disaster aid.

    Theorizing about Presidents and Distributive Politics

    Weingast, Shepsle, and Johnsen (1981) define distributive politics as policy areaswith project-by-project orientation, the geographic concentration of benefits, and thediffusion of costs (681). In this article distributive politics implies disproportionatebenefits relative to the burdens to geographic constituencies. This fits the nature ofdisaster relief, as disasters are inherently local or regional events, yet the federal govern-ment routinely provides relief and is expected to do so.


  • Distributive Politics and Congress

    The vast majority of the early work related to distributive politics focuses on theability of senators and representatives in Congress to direct funds to specific constituen-cies. Two basic theories developed. Swing voter theory indicates that parties (or legisla-tors) will target marginal constituencies, defined as the states or districts most likely tochange hands in an upcoming election (Bickers and Stein 1996; Lindbeck and Weibull1987; Stein and Bickers 2009). The other often-tested theory posits that risk-averseincumbents will direct attention toward their strongest supporters and will be referred toas coalition maintenance (Cox and McCubbins 1986).2

    Distributive Politics and the Executive Branch

    Evidence of geographic distributive politics in the executive branch was first putforth by Wright (1974) who found that during the New Deal, Works Progress Admin-istration jobs went disproportionately to electorally competitive states. More recentwork has continued to investigate the prevalence of distributive politics within executiveagencies. Mebane and Wawro (2002) found a modest increase in federal expenditures forbasic programs toward supporters after midterm elections (coalition maintenance). Berry,Burden, and Howell (2010) found that congressional districts transitioning from beingrepresented by a member of the opposition to a member of the presidents party enjoyincreased federal expenditures and Gersen and Berry (2010) find this affect to be largerfor agencies with a higher proportion of political appointees (maintenance of a newcoalition).

    The above research indicates that executive agencies appear to use distributivepolitics for partisan advantage but does not put forth evidence that these decisions arebeing made in the White House. Gersen and Berry (2010) as well as Gordon (2011)indicate that political appointees likely play a role, but these appointees may be acting onexplicit or implicit direction of the president or simply demonstrating their own partisanbiases. This article is focused on presidential influence in this process. The next sectionidentifies specific methods by which the president may exert this influence.

    Direct Presidential Distributive Powers

    Although Congress holds the power of the purse, the president and executivebranch wield considerable power over distributive allocations (Fisher 1975). As the leaderof the executive branch, the president has the ability to influence agency decision makingthrough executive orders (Mayer and Price 2002) and involvement in the rule-makingprocess (DeMuth and Ginsburg 1986; Krent 2005). For example, Presidents John F.Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all used this power to require presidentialapproval of all U.S. Agency for International Development distributions over $5 million(McKeown 2005).

    2. Cox and McCubbins (1986) do not provide a formal name for this theory. Coalition maintenancewill be used throughout this article for ease of reference.


  • More recently Congress has taken to delegating power to the president and execu-tive agencies as the demands on its own time increase. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s,this has been most apparent in the areas of Medicaid (Thompson and Burke 2007) andenvironmental policy (Bowers 2010). The issuance of Medicaid waivers is the responsi-bility of the secretary of Health and Human Services, but the authority to grant waiversof environmental regulations varies from the Environmental Protection Agency admin-istrator to the president himself.3 The issuance of waivers and other administrativedecisions delegated to the executive branch by Congress are the areas ripest for presiden-tial involvement in distributive politics. This power is likely to be relatively unchecked,as there is a reason Congress delegated this power in the first place. These decisions maybe political risky (Arnold 1992), too technical for Congress to handle given its limitedtime (Bowers 2010), or require a speedy response to an unexpected situation (Wamsleyand Schroeder 1996).

    Presidential Power and Disaster Response

    The disaster relief system that has developed over the past 60 years is relativelyunique and reflects the politically sensitive, technical, and time-critical elements ofdisaster response. Since 1950, presidents have possessed the power to issue nationaldisaster declarations that then allow states to apply for federal reimbursement for apercentage of the losses caused by the disaster. The funds for this aid are appropriatedby Congress into the Presidential Disaster Relief Fund and are not earmarked for anyspecific disaster (Sylves 2008). Congress makes deposits into this account and theFederal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributes the funds as reimburse-ment for qualifying expenses in states and counties designated as federal disaster areas.

    The Disaster Relief Act of 1950 (P.L. 81-875) limited the use of federal funds forpublic assistance to the repair of public structures (no rebuilding and no private struc-tures). Over the course of the last 60 years, the scope of this aid has gradually increasedto cover almost any disaster-related damages (Sylves 2008). Although the scope hasincreased considerably the process is unchanged. After a disaster strikes, state and localgovernments are responsible for the immediate response. Once the extent of the damageis known the governor, with the assistance of local FEMA officials, requests a nationaldisaster designation from the president.4 Further information is compiled by FEMA atthe national level, and then a recommendation is made to the president if the disasterdeclaration should be approved or denied. If the declaration is approved, the state is theneligible for federal reimbursement of 75% of eligible expenses.5

    3. To avoid questions of who controls the bureaucracy (Hammond and Knott 1996), this articlefocuses on decisions delegated to the president.

    4. In rare circumstances, if a major disaster is imminent, the president will issue a temporaryemergency declaration allowing the immediate allocation of federal resources. Many of these emergencydeclarations are later revised to be full disaster declarations after the fact.

    5. The Mt. St. Helens disaster in 1980 was the first instance of the 75%/25% arrangement(McCarthy 2010). Before this, the cost sharing arrangement varied widely from disaster to disaster. Hearingsregarding the Mt. St. Helens disaster and funding for recovery operations provide a prime example of themessiness of appropriating federal disaster relief funds on a disaster-by-disaster basis (May 1985).


  • Others have examined disaster response for political motivations and conse-quences with mixed results. This research into the politicization of disasters has exclu-sively focused on the issuance of presidential disaster declarations. Garrett and Sobel(2003) find that states that are more electorally important are slightly more likely toreceive more declarations, and that more declarations are issued in election years. Incontrast, Sylves and Bzs (2007) examined an extended period of time and did notfind any state partisanship variables to be significant. The only significant predictorfound was election year. Reeves (2011) continued this line of research, finding thatstates considered highly competitive were likely to receive nearly twice as manydeclarations as less competitive states. Healy and Malhotra (2009) also examine theelectoral impact and find more broadly that incumbents are generously rewarded fordisaster relief funding.

    Not only does the president have the power to declare federal disaster areas,but also the power to increase the share of federal public assistance. The Stafford Act(42 U.S.C. 5126-5206), originally passed in 1988, establishes 75% as the standardfederal reimbursement rate for qualifying expenses in a federal declared disaster area.6

    The act also allows for discretionary raising of the federal cost share by the president,which occurs for a handful of disasters each year, usually weeks or months after adisaster (Moss, Schellhamer, and Berman 2009). This makes the presidents decision toincrease the federal cost share a relatively quiet one, as the disaster has usually fadedfrom national attention, yet this benefit is tangible and easily recognized by the receiv-ing communities.

    Previous research has focused on the very public (and sometimes controversial)issuance of major disaster declarations. It would be much riskier for a president topoliticize the issuance of declarations compared to cost share increases, as there is a highdanger of being publicly accused of playing favorites when communities are in direneed after disasters. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of the political danger ofmismanagement in the immediate aftermath of a disaster (Birch and Wachter 2006).Additionally, this previous research around disaster declarations is essentially focused onvery small disasters at the margins for which it is debatable whether they are deservingof a federal disaster declaration or not. Although these are significant events for thecommunities involved, they are relatively insignificant in the bigger pictur...