This past year was the stuff of legends for old men on front porches, firefighters, and weather people—old men because we love to talk about weather; firefighters because if there wasn’t a flood or wildfire to go to, you weren’t looking hard enough; and weather folks, well, because they dig weather. And it raises some interesting questions about responses, reimbursement, fairness, codes, and common sense.
When these things happen, we go—no questions asked; it is after that that questions are asked and should be—questions like, Should folks rebuild in these locations? How much should the federal government spend to help them? and Is it right that the working stiff’s taxes in Nebraska help replace or protect a mansion in the hills?
All of this is interesting, which is why it reminds us of Davy Crockett. The story has it that Congress was voting on a bill to give a distinguished Navy officer’s widow $20,000 because she had fallen on hard times and someone thought it was a good idea to help her because her husband was such a great man. Everyone was good with the idea until Crockett got up and said, “Not so fast.” He acknowledged that the man was great and served admirably but that he had been appropriately compensated and was not owed any more government money.
He is quoted as saying, “Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill ….”
When asked why he killed the bill, Crockett told a story. He recalled a few years back when he and some other members of Congress went to Georgetown to fight a fire. “Hardest work I had ever done,” he commented. They were moved by the devastation of many homes and the plight of the displaced folks. When back in Congress the next day, they passed a bill to give those unfortunate folks $20,000 to rebuild and get back on their feet.
When he was up for reelection the next year, he was out on the road and asked a passing farmer if he would vote for him. The man said he had voted for him in the past but would never do so again. Crockett said, “This was a sockdolager …. I begged him to tell me what was the matter.” The man explained to Crockett that his understanding of the Constitution is very different than Crockett’s or that otherwise Crockett was dishonest.
This is where we should pay attention in all our oaths where we swear to uphold the Constitution. Then the man said the most interesting thing: “The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more honest he is.” Confused, Crockett asked what part of the Constitution he had violated. The man asked, “Did you not vote to appropriate $20,000 for the folks who suffered the Georgetown fire?” Crockett said, “Yes, but who wouldn’t? Such a small amount and the folks were suffering ….”
The man explained that it wasn’t the amount, it was the principle: Collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power a person can acquire. While you are giving money to relieve one person, you are taking money from thousands who are worse off.
He explained to Crockett: “No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this county as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief …. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution …. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people.”
The federal government has a responsibility to protect the citizens; it is its primary function. How this is accomplished is complicated; it always has been. But the moral hazard is clear. When we gather to discuss code, land use, and development and where we recognize and have solid evidence of probable elevated risk, what is our responsibility as citizens, as responders, as government officials?
Responding is not a question. If needed, we will come. Endangered regions should front-end load as much response capability as possible, but we all know the only immutable truth there is: “Mother Nature will pick her time and place and kick our butts.” Should local leaders identify some regions as “unprotectable” and either prevent or allow building only at our own risk? Should property owners be on the hook for unusual or repeated response costs?
The question of fairness always comes up during hurricane and wildfire seasons. We know these regions are going to suffer, so who pays, and what risks are acceptable? Tough questions, but in fact it is only money, and money is what it is, a tool. The larger, more important, question is life, human life. There is no bill or appropriation any Congress can pass to replace lost souls. There is also no way to stop American firefighters from responding when they think they can make a difference—by boat, by plane or halftrack, we will come. The knockout punch—the sockdolager—is we understood that when we swore the oath.