07/23/2007 02:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Government Is the Problem

Ronald Reagan famously said, in his first inaugural address, that "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem." This belief has been an article of faith for reactionaries ever since, and from 2000 to 2006 the entire federal government was gripped by cultish obeisance to this belief.

We have learned, of course, to our sorrow, that when government is run by people who subscribe to this cult, government does become the problem -- look at the way the right has handled Katrina, Iraq, protecting communities from fire, and the aftermath of 9/11. For the same reason the College of Cardinals would not elect an atheist as Pope, we shouldn't trust those who don't believe in government to run it.

Last week, a Congressional hearing brought this into savage relief.

At the urging of the Sierra Club, Henry Waxman's House Oversight Committee looked into the scandal that, in providing hundreds of thousands of trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA ignored evidence that the trailers it was buying were killing their residents with astronomical levels of formaldehyde.

FEMA didn't check the trailers out itself, it turns out. But when Sierra Club volunteers on the Gulf Coast began hearing reports of nausea and headaches from the fumes, we set up a testing program. Thirty of the thirty-two trailers we tested had toxic levels of formaldehyde -- levels above the point at which federal workers would be required to use respirators if exposed all day to fumes. Residents complained of headaches, burning eyes, running noses and asthma.

The Club told FEMA. What did FEMA do? It covered up. FEMA decided not to test the trailers, because its lawyers advised it that if it tested, it might be expected to do something.

FEMA's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing," because this "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue," wrote a FEMA logistics specialist on June 16, 2006, three months after news reports surfaced about the possible effects of the invisible cancer-causing compound and one month after the agency was sued.

Today, 60,000 families are still living in the toxic trailers. When Waxman's Committee began to look into the issue, FEMA attempted, in the words of Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis, to obstruct the hearing and, when it failed, "mischaracterized the scope and purpose" of its actions.

FEMA defended itself by saying it had acted responsibly. In perhaps the most positive mention of the Sierra Club ever by a Bush administration official, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said that the Sierra Club report on formaldehyde in trailers had been "a wake-up call" for FEMA. Chairman Waxman, commenting on the long period of time it took for FEMA to do anything, replied, "Mr. Paulison, you're a heavy sleeper." He then summed up this whole sorry episode by saying, "They didn't want the moral and legal responsibility to do what they knew had to be done," and said, almost in an understatement, that it was "sickening."

The toxic trailers, of course, are only a small part of the mismanagement of the post-Katrina recovery effort -- but time and time again it has been made clear that when we put in charge of government people who basically don't like or trust it, they don't do a good job. And when government doesn't do a good job, people die -- as some of these toxic trailer residents almost certainly will. It is as simple as that.