Writing checks, the wags say, is what the United States government does best.
Except, we think, when it comes to disaster aid.
In a meeting marking the beginning of hurricane season, President Donald Trump met with members of the Cabinet and others. He said aid would not be held up in the event of a disaster.
"We do it quickly. We do it effectively," Trump said. "We are very strong with respect to FEMA. FEMA is something I've been very much involved in already."
While a disaster is by nature a chaotic situation, we think there are lessons that the president and Congress could learn from Louisiana, where we've had a lot more experience than even a New York City developer at the time of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, who now happens to be president of the United States.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not perfect, but since the catastrophically poor response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, presidents Barack Obama and Trump have appointed experienced administrators to this critical job. FEMA has done better, no question.
But can it do better still? We think Louisiana folks could give valuable lessons.
After the disastrous floods in the greater Baton Rouge area, too many people could not get access to FEMA soon enough. To quote a favorite line of the congressman representing the capital city region, Garret Graves, "the federal government has a customer service problem."
Graves has helped to do something about it, pushing legislation to make databases accessible directly in an emergency, instead of requiring people to wait on the telephone for FEMA agents or contractors.
That small but welcome step should only be the first way in which the U.S. government reassesses its response to natural disasters.
Maybe FEMA should have more authority, rather than less. Today, hurricane response is in FEMA's corner, but long-term recovery aid — as Louisiana has found out again this year — is by law doled out in packets by a dysfunctional budget process in Congress. The checks then come via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through block grant programs.
We don't knock anybody, but we cannot help but wonder that the long process of rulemaking and regulation-writing by HUD stands in the way of the president's boast about efficiently writing checks. The goal is to use block grant funds correctly and without waste or corruption. The reality is that state and local officials face a new bureaucracy that reinvents the wheel, one of the reasons most cited for delays in aid after the 2016 flooding.
Louisiana's members of Congress and Gov. John Bel Edwards have spoken directly to new HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who visited New Orleans and Baton Rouge to observe the problems and opportunities here first hand.
These issues are complex. We don't need a new federal bureaucracy midway between FEMA and HUD. The taxpayer should be protected against fraudulent claims. But surely the events over the last dozen years in Louisiana should lead Congress to restructure how disaster aid is delivered, so that the checks come in a timely fashion for communities.