Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidents Profiting from Disasters: Evidence of Presidential Distributive Politics

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidents Profiting from Disasters: Evidence of Presidential Distributive Politics

Article excerpt

Large areas of northern Oklahoma were hit by severe storms and flooding in the first two weeks of June 2008. Property damage was estimated to total more than $759 million, an astounding $198 for every resident of Oklahoma. (1) That same summer Missouri also experienced severe storms and flooding. Property damage totaled $17 million, or about $3 per capita. Crop damage totaled an additional $58 million, bringing the total damage to roughly $14 per capita. Counties in both states were declared to be "federal disaster areas" by President George W. Bush, making affected jurisdictions eligible 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 few weeks after the flooding while Oklahoma did not receive this extra assistance.

President Bush's decision to increase the federal reimbursement percentage sent an extra $8 million to Missouri. Why did Missouri receive more favorable treatment than Oklahoma? The Oklahoma storms had a much greater financial impact on the state, and they definitely could have used the additional assistance they would have received in reimbursement at the 90% level. Partisan politics provides a plausible explanation. Missouri was widely expected to be a pivotal swing state in that fall's presidential election, and this proved true with only 3,903 votes separating John McCain and Barack Obama. There was no danger of Republicans losing Oklahoma, which McCain ended up carrying with a 31% margin over Obama.

I study the effects of presidential electoral politics on the federal government's financial response to disasters. Specifically I ask whether states supportive of the president or "swing states" are more likely to receive additional disaster aid through presidentially ordered increases in the federal reimbursement rate after specific disasters. To answer this question I construct an original data set including information about presidential decisions regarding disaster aid for 945 disasters spanning 19 years and three presidential administrations (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama). I find that presidents are more likely to send additional aid to swing states and most significantly that the presidents in this study used their power in different ways, likely due in part to contrasting electoral strategies. These findings demonstrate the presence of partisan political calculations in the distribution of disaster aid, a power delegated to the president by Congress precisely to avoid such occurrences.

This article begins with a theoretical overview of distributive politics and the executive branch. Two theories are borrowed from the congressional literature as ways in which policy makers may wield policy power in a partisan way. Swing voter theory expects policy makers to focus on swing states while coalition maintenance expects policy makers 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 of the next presidential election, are tested as additional partisan factors with the potential to influence the distribution of disaster aid.

Theorizing about Presidents and Distributive Politics

Weingast, Shepsle, and Johnsen (1981) define distributive politics as policy areas with "project-by-project orientation, the geographic concentration of benefits, and the diffusion of costs" (681). In this article distributive politics implies disproportionate benefits relative to the burdens to geographic constituencies. This fits the nature of disaster relief, as disasters are inherently local or regional events, yet the federal government 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 the ability of senators and representatives in Congress to direct funds to specific constituencies. …

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