House of Cards Takes on FEMA

(Warning if you haven’t watched Season 3 of House of Cards – contains spoilers)

The Stafford Act has a starring role in the new season of the hit political drama House of Cards. The award-winning Netflix series is a dark and cynical portrayal of Washington politics that follows Democrat Frank Underwood  and his wife Claire as they navigate the path towards greater power.

This season finds Frank in the Oval Office with plunging popularity. Stymied by Congress in his efforts to enact an ambitious jobs program, he schemes to work around the legislative branch entirely by declaring unemployment and its deleterious effects a federal disaster, thus allowing him to subsidize his program with the Disaster Relief Fund.


FEMA has already weighed in the issue, expressing it’s displeasure with a tweet on March 2



The short answer is: technically, yes.


The Stafford Act, passed into law in 1988, is an extension of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. It authorizes the president to make three types of declarations: Fire Management Assistant Grant (FMAG) program, emergencies, and major disasters. Contrary to what many people believe, the president/FEMA can’t just declare a disaster. True to the philosophy of a local approach, the request must move up  the chain from local governments in the affected area(s), to the governor of the state, who then requests a disaster declaration from the President. At that point, FEMA sends representatives to meet with state officials to compile a Preliminary Damage Report (PDR) and recommend to the Executive Branch whether or not to declare. Declaration of a disaster is an important step as it allows for access to Federal Programs and reimbursement at a rate of 75% for every 25% spent by the States.


In true Underwoodian style, Frank steers the process with a few masterful strokes. Since 2002, FEMA no longer has a seat on the cabinet as it was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, so he first fires the Director of Homeland Security and makes himself interim Director. He next bullies the Director of FEMA into falling in line, allowing for a favorable Preliminary Damage Report. The final hurdle would be the largest: Frank would have to convince politicians from the local level all the way up through a governor to be on board with his plan. Because Washington DC is independent and has no governor or county officials other than the Mayor himself, Frank simplifies this problem by recruiting the Mayor to request a disaster declaration.


This is of course not in the spirit of the Act, and highlights how Federal laws are often purposefully written to provide leeway. There are challenges in both the judicial and legislative branches, which President Underwood shrugs away with his usual indifference towards procedure.


While we shouldn’t expect this interpretation of the law outside of a TV drama, it does highlight an actual concern with the Stafford Act, namely alarm over the rising number of declarations. In the 1960s, the average number of declarations per year was 19. From 2000 to 2009, it was 56. There is some argument about the reason for this, with some saying its an increase in the number of disasters due to factors such as population growth and climate change, while others cite a growing sense of entitlement on behalf of the States to the Disaster Relief Fund. Time will tell whether the future holds limits on the Stafford Act, such as requiring an expert panel to declare disasters, adjusting the federal to state cost share, or changing the per capita formula used to justify declarations.


To all these concerns, Frank would quip “Democracy is so overrated”. Luckily, this sort of gambit, while technically possible, is highly unlikely. Still, it makes for great TV.


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