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date: 22 April 2019

Executive and Legislative Competition Over Natural Hazards Policies

Summary and Keywords

As with countless other policy areas, natural hazard policy can be viewed as a jurisdictional competition between executive and legislative branches. While policymaking supremacy is delegated to the legislative branch in constitutional democracies, the power over implementation, budgeting, and grant-making that executive agencies enjoy means that the executive branch wields considerable influence over outcomes in natural hazards policymaking. The rules that govern federal implementation of complex legislative policies put the implementing agency at the center of influence over how policy priorities play out in local, county, and state processes before, during, and after disasters hit.

Examples abound related to this give-and-take between the legislative and executive functions of government within the hazards and disaster realm, but none more telling than the changes made to US disaster policy after September 11th, which profoundly affected natural hazards policy as well as security policy. The competition and potential for mismatch between legislative and executive priorities has been heightened since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security. While this may appear uniquely American, the primacy of terrorism and other security-related threats not only dwarfs natural hazards issues in the United States, but also globally. Among the most professionalized and powerful natural hazards and disaster agencies prior to 9/11, FEMA has seen its influence diminished and its access to decision-makers reduced.

This picture of legislative and executive actors within the natural hazards policy domain who compete for supremacy goes beyond the role of FEMA and post-9/11 policy. Power dynamics associated with budgets, oversight and accountability, and relative power among executive agencies are ongoing issues important to understanding the competition for policy influence as natural hazards policy competes for attention, funding, and power within the broader domain of all-hazards policy.

Keywords: natural hazards, public policy, disaster policy, executive branch power, legislative supremacy, executive competition, hazards policy

As with much research in public policy and public administration, natural hazards policy is a domain within which there is competition between the legislative and executive governing functions. While policymaking supremacy is delegated to the legislative branch in democracies, the power over implementation, budgeting, and grant-making that executive agencies enjoy means that the executive branch wields considerable influence over outcomes in natural hazards policymaking. Power dynamics among legislative and executive governance are ongoing issues important to understand in order to fully comprehend natural hazards policy outcomes and the constraints placed upon government bodies to respond to and prepare for disasters.

In many ways, natural hazards policy is similar to other policy domains where legislative and executive competition is routine. Natural hazards, however, amplify these tensions because so much of the policy action related to natural hazards takes place during implementation, which is typified by crisis and disaster situations where legislative influence is limited. Natural hazards policy is a domain within which significant legislative influence over policymaking happens through passage of legislation long before a disaster strikes, focused on potential disasters and future risks, and thereafter is limited to the budget-making and oversight functions of the legislative branch once a disaster event unfolds.

This article draws from literature in political science, public policy, public administration, and natural hazards and disaster policy to outline the give-and-take of the competition between the executive and legislative branches with regard to natural hazards policy. It approaches the discussion through the lens of US natural hazards policy, but when possible compares the US system to what is likely seen in other democracies when international or comparative scholarship is available. Because the United States is the most commonly studied democracy, the scholarship is unfortunately limited with regard to executive and legislative analyses of hazards and disaster policy beyond the United States. The decisions made after September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in the United States typify the relationship between legislative and executive branches and provide good cases for understanding how this competition plays out in natural hazards policy. The case of 9/11, although not natural hazards–focused itself, significantly affected all emergency management and disaster policy in the United States, including natural hazards, through policy revisions, and reorganization of the executive branch of the US government. These cases also provide the context for how natural hazards policy is currently approached by many national-level governments in western democracies.

The survey of literature and discussion of natural hazards policy acknowledges that the subfield of public policy and natural hazards scholarship has gained new attention in the public policy field over the past decade. This article contributes to an understanding of what has been a fairly disparate area of scholarship. As the subfield matures, scholarly understanding of these governance dynamics will also surely mature. Hopefully, the expansion of scholarship into non-US contexts will be part of this maturation. The article begins with a discussion of the classic concepts of legislative and executive power and competition before exploring the nuances of natural hazards policy. First, the role of the legislative branch as the lawmaking body of government is discussed, followed by a comparison of executive branch functions. The article then focuses specifically on natural hazards policymaking and implementation, drawing on research conducted in this policy domain as well as the foundational work from public policy and public administration.

Legislative and Executive Functions in Democracies

Natural hazards scholarship has historically not incorporated significant focus on public policy or public administration concepts, theories, or research. This is not to say that the field has been uninterested in hazards and disaster policy, but rather that scholarship has mostly focused on policy instruments and analysis of policy outcomes (see, e.g., Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2017; Berke, Kartez, & Wenger, 1993; Garrett & Sobel, 2003; Haas, Kates, & Bowden, 1977; Rose et al., 2007; Rubin, Saperstein, & Berbee, 1985), rather than understanding the processes, influences, and actors governing policy decisions and outcomes regarding natural hazards policy. More recently, social scientists have increasingly focused on understanding these predictive and explanatory aspects of natural hazards policymaking and have developed a growing body of natural hazards policy scholarship (see e.g., Albright, 2011; Albright & Crow, 2015; Aldrich & Meyer, 2015; Aldrich & Ono, 2016; Aldrich, Page, & Paul, 2016; Birkland, 1998, 2006; Birkland & Warnement, 2014; Crow, Berggren, et al., 2016; Crow et al., 2017; DeLeo, 2015; Gerber, 2007; Koebele et al., 2015; Nohrstedt & Weible, 2010; O’Donovan, 2017, 2015; Robinson, Eller, Gall, & Gerber, 2013). Much of this recent scholarship is situated in the political science subfields of public policy and public administration, which frequently focus on the divergence—in both process and outcomes—between policymaking and policy implementation. This article first introduces the concepts of legislative supremacy and executive power through policy implementation before digging into the specifics of natural hazards policy itself.

Legislative Supremacy in Democracy

One does not have to dig much deeper than Article I of the US Constitution to see clearly that the legislative function of a democratic government is viewed as the central and primary lawmaking authority, and this view of legislative bodies goes beyond the US context to other constitutional democracies as well (Allan, 1985; Massey, 1990; McIlwain, 1910). Ample evidence suggests that with minor variation, the idea that the legislature represents the wishes of voters and therefore should govern lawmaking unless its decisions are explicitly unconstitutional is widely seen across democracies (Allan, 1985; Bellamy, 2006; Massey, 1990; McIlwain, 1910), except those plagued with presidential corruption and abuse of power (Morgenstern & Manzetti, 2003; Siavelis, 2000).

Much research in public policy focuses on the role that legislatures play in designing and deciding upon policies. This policy process scholarship implicitly views the legislature—most often the US Congress or US state legislatures—as the focus of policymaking power. This is also true for scholarship conducted in the European Union, where parliaments are the focus of policy process research. In this tradition, policies are often viewed through the lens of subsystems or policy domains within which issues are debated and decided (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009; Birkland, 1996; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999; Weible & Sabatier, 2009; Weible, Sabatier, & McQueen, 2009). Within these domains, all of the actors and institutions engaged in policy matters, including advocacy organizations, experts, citizens, and decision-makers, are involved in debating and deciding policies (Weible, 2007). But the primary focus of much public policy scholarship is the role of the legislative branch in debating and deciding public policy. Legislatures have the power to govern through passage of laws that then must be implemented by the executive branch of government. This lawmaking power is the most frequent focus of public policy scholarship, but passage of policy by legislatures can also sometimes be less likely to happen due to gridlock or when issues fail to capture policy agenda attention (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009).

From this area scholarship, it is known that policy changes are more likely to happen when focusing events draw attention to problems which had previously gone unaddressed (Kingdon, 2003) or when resourceful advocates called policy entrepreneurs work to promote their policy goals (Crow, 2010b; King & Roberts, 1992; Mintrom, 1997; Mintrom & Normal, 2009; Roberts & King, 1991). The increase in agenda salience and possible shifts in understanding of policy problems revealed by focusing events improves their chances of being addressed in legislative processes (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009). It is also known that less visible issues are often not addressed in the same manner as the highly visible ones that are deemed focusing events (R. D. Arnold, 1990; Crow, 2010a). In these less visible domains, experts and technocrats may wield considerable power compared to citizens, media, and advocates. Finally, scholars understand that legislative decision making can be very slow and the chances of policy change at a given time are low, falling in favor of maintaining the status quo (Bardach, 1976; Frantz, 2002; Jones, True, & Baumgartner, 1997; Lindblom, 1959, 1979).

Power of the Budget

Aside from the lawmaking function of legislatures, the budget-making process is one of the primary areas where legislatures can wield power over governance even after a law is passed and moves into the executive branch for rulemaking and implementation. Scholars argue that part of the framers’ intent in constructing the US Constitution was to create Congress as the dominant branch, and they therefore gave the legislature near-exclusive control over the budget (Mikva, 1986; Wehner, 2006). Legislatures typically approve budgets for government agencies as well as specific spending to implement various laws, and therefore implementation of laws can be affected dramatically by funding levels and priorities (LeLoup, 1980). With limited exceptions, such as disaster declarations, where presidents have considerable influence over emergency funding (Stafford Act, 2000; Bea, 2010), the legislature exclusively holds the purse strings of government and therefore exercises significant power over both the passage and implementation of laws.

Legislative Oversight Authority

In addition to lawmaking and budget allocations, legislatures also hold the power of oversight of executive branch agencies. Executive branch agencies are powerful in most democracies and have been a source of consternation and debate for as long as there have been scholars devoted to studying these institutions (D. Arnold, 1979; Weber, 1946; J. Q. Wilson, 1989; Wood & Waterman, 1991), with examples in western Europe of bureaucrats engaging in political battles of will with elected officials (Putnam, 1973) and in the United States of difficulties that Congress has in controlling a political and powerful bureaucracy (Aberbach, 2001). Through its congressional oversight functions, the US Congress attempts to maintain some control over the bureaucracy through review of agencies, policies and programs, and actions such as disaster response (Aberbach, 2001; Rockman, 1984). Most importantly, the purpose of congressional oversight powers is to ensure that the executive branch agencies remain true to the legislative intent of the laws they are charged with implementing (McCubbins & Schwartz, 1984). Oversight is a powerful tool used in routine governance to ensure accountability, but it becomes very important when something goes wrong and requires investigation or review. Since the 1970s, congressional oversight activity in the United States has increased significantly (Aberbach, 2001). Oversight is viewed as a mechanism to control an overgrown and willful executive branch, but also to ensure that the legislative intent of laws is being translated into the implementation functions of government (McCubbins & Schwartz, 1984; Putnam, 1973; Rockman, 1984).

Two forms of legislative oversight are important to note. First, a sustained attention to agencies and their actions is one possible type of oversight. This type of oversight involves legislative committees that routinely review ongoing activities within agencies, along with leadership priorities. A second and more commonly used type of oversight is akin to what scholars call “fire alarm” oversight, wherein a legislature chooses to conduct oversight hearings and investigations when something has gone wrong or an event has drawn attention to agency dysfunction or mistakes (McCubbins & Schwartz, 1984).

Some scholars have argued that the important features of US congressional oversight allow for accountability and ferret out corruption in a way that other countries do not see. Using examples from Latin America, scholars draw comparisons in the evolution of governance and corruption, particularly contrasting the role of oversight to hold executive agencies and the president accountable in Argentina and Chile, where despite constitutional democracies, legislatures have not held executive power in check or worked to protect government transparency (Morgenstern & Manzetti, 2003; Siavelis, 2000). Scholars argue that this lack of legislative oversight is one reason corruption is seen in some otherwise democratic nations.

Presidential Power and Executive Authority Through Implementation

There is ample scholarly focus on the power of the presidency in the United States. This body of political science analyzes the power that presidents derive from their vaguely defined lawmaking authority through issuing executive orders and executive actions as well as less formal sources of power that presidents draw upon to influence policies and politics (Mayer, 2002; Metcalf, 2000; Moe & Howell, 1999; Neustadt, 1960, 1980, 1991). While limited in its power to originate laws, except through the functions of executive orders and rulemaking, the executive branch is powerful, in part due to the vast job of day-to-day governing and implementation of complex laws.

First, with regard to this governing function of the executive branch, agencies write law through rulemaking processes to create the tools by which laws can be monitored, enforced, and otherwise measured during implementation (Kerwin, 2003). The executive branch of government holds the power to promulgate regulations to implement laws passed by the legislature to provide agencies with the tools they need to translate policy goals into outcomes (Weber, 1946; West, 2004; J. Q. Wilson, 1989). Within the scope of rulemaking there is considerable political influence by various actors in the regulated industries, advocacy community, and political actors themselves (Crow, Albright, & Koebele, 2016; West & Raso, 2013; Yackee, 2006). This rulemaking authority has become increasingly powerful in policymaking in the United States and Europe as executive agencies vie for power and legislatures are stymied by gridlock or opt to use vague language in their policy formulation, thereby leaving interpretation for implementation to the bureaucracy (Aberbach, 2001; Kerwin, 2003). While scholars generally agree that legislative supremacy is the goal of democracies, they also concur that when legislatures choose to promulgate broadly designed or vague policies, regulatory agencies must act to interpret their intent and create rules that allow them to implement policy, without which policies would be toothless and unenforceable (Allan, 1985; Eskridge Jr., 1989; Farber, 1989; Massey, 1990; McIlwain, 1910).

Through their power of implementation and enforcement of laws, executive branch agencies wield considerable power over how policies are interpreted. Just as important for the discussion presented in this article, the role of bureaucrats themselves in shaping implementation is central to understanding how policy gets interpreted and enforced, as well as the resulting policy outcomes (Hupe & Hill, 2016; May & Winter, 2009; Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973). Studies show, in particular, that strong organizational leadership is important to effective policy implementation and satisfactory outcomes (Andrews & Boyne, 2010). Street-level bureaucrats, those government personnel who are tasked with the day-to-day functions of implementation whereby they interact with citizens, are also powerful through translating policies to actual outcomes, and they may also influence higher levels of agency management through their expertise and clear policy goals (May & Winter, 2009).

Competition Between Executive and Legislative Functions in Natural Hazards Policy

In natural hazards policy, these legislative and executive functions outlined in the prior sections are magnified due to the nature of hazards—they are long-term risks that often culminate in a sudden crisis event where the impact of governance is seen in the success of emergency response and disaster recovery. The time horizon upon which these policy concepts play out is crucial to understanding the power of legislative and executive branches at a given time. This timeline is described by the classic disaster cycle, which includes disaster preparedness, emergency response, disaster recovery, and hazard mitigation (Petak, 1985), and therefore this must be part of any discussion of governance of natural hazards.

Emergency response in particular is distinct from the other stages of disaster due to the necessity of protecting lives and property. This stage is characterized by a more top-down organizational structure akin to a military operation, and in the United States this structure is outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s training for emergency responders using the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to standardize all disaster response approaches (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006; Jensen, 2011). Disaster recovery, alternatively, is a longer-term process wherein communities and individuals recover and rebuild after disaster (Berke et al., 1993; Chang, 2010; Garnett & Moore, 2010; O’Donovan, 2015). While scholars argue that there should be a standardized approach during recovery similar to the approach to emergency response, it is not typical to see the same planning process focused on disaster recovery, and it can appear ad hoc in different disaster contexts (Garnett & Moore, 2010; Olshansky & Chang, 2009; Rubin, 2009; P. A. Wilson, 2009). Hazard mitigation and disaster preparedness are longer-term processes where individuals and communities attempt to reduce their vulnerability to risks through mitigation actions and simultaneously prepare for potential future disasters by practicing response procedures (Berke et al., 1993; Lagadec, 2007; J. F. McCarthy, 2014).

Table 1. Legislative and Executive Functions in the Disaster Cycle

Disaster Stage

Description of Activities

Legislative Functions

Executive Functions


Long-term process of planning for and practicing response to potential disaster events.

Develop policies to focus on possible disasters, drawing from expert assessments of risk.

Create rules to establish processes by which sub-national governments access assistance from national agencies.

Allocate funding for preparedness activities to federal agencies, which can be granted to states and local governments.

Train for disasters and the role that national government agencies play in assistance.


Immediate emergency response, evacuation, rescue, and corollary activities.

Allocate special appropriations for disaster response and relief.

Declare official disasters to trigger government response and relief assistance.

Conduct legislative oversight of government agency role during response.

Respond or assist sub-national agencies in response to disasters by coordinating and providing resources.


Medium-term process by which individuals and communities rebuild and recover from disaster.

Allocate special appropriations for disaster recovery.

Allocate funds through grants, direct payments, and capacity-building resources such as expert advice assistance.

Conduct legislative oversight of government agency role during recovery.


Long-term process through which individuals and communities reduce their risk to potential hazards.

Develop policies for long-term risk reduction, including funding risk mitigation activities such as floodplain mapping, wildfire mitigation grants, and similar projects.

Allocate grant or direct funds for hazard mitigation projects to sub-national governments.

Each of these four stages is unique with regard to the roles that both legislative and executive branches of government play. Table 1 illustrates the differences in legislative and executive activity during each of these stages. It is, of course, simplified and many other activities may be observed, but the table demonstrates the major distinctions between the government branches with regard to natural hazards policy. Government funding and attention is by and large focused on emergency response and disaster recovery, although after September 11, 2001, the United States and other nations increased their focus on preparedness, primarily in the area of terrorism and homeland security (Tierney, 2007).

Based on this understanding of the various governmental roles during the four disaster stages, the competition between legislative and executive actors will be discussed next, also drawing from the foundational concepts presented in Legislative and Executive Functions in Democracies.

Legislative Policymaking for Natural Hazards

Legislative authority and influence over natural hazards policy typically come long before a crisis event, but also include a type of after-action review to learn from disasters, which may inform future policymaking. First and foremost, legislatures must pass policies based on either (1) projections of future events and risk calculations, which can make passage difficult and conflict-ridden, or (2) lessons learned from a past disaster that was poorly managed or involved significant negative outcomes, lessons typically gleaned from legislative oversight processes. The second important area of legislative importance is through supplemental disaster funding allocations which are reactive in nature in response to major disasters.

In projecting future events, legislatures have to consider the possible outcomes and needs during a crisis, disaster, or catastrophe (Boin & ’t Hart, 2007; Perry, 2007; Quarantelli, Lagadec, & Boin, 2007) and develop policy that can respond to the uncertainties inherent in disasters, including not knowing the type of disaster (wildfire, hurricane, terrorist attack, industrial accident, cyber-attack, etc.), where it may strike, or the scope of the damage. In the United States, the Stafford Act is the primary policy that dictates federal response and assistance to disasters (Stafford Act, 2000; Bea, 2010; Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2016). The Act specifies the process by which a disaster can be declared and the associated government activities that can be triggered by such a declaration. Through passage of the Act, Congress planned for the reality that disasters require immediate government response rather than the delayed debate inherent in the legislative process. Congress also codified into law an extraordinary amount of presidential power to approve or deny disaster declaration requests by governors, or to declare disasters unilaterally, and the vast powers to spend and act that a disaster declaration allows (Bea, 2010; F. X. McCarthy, 2010; Reeves, 2011).

Legislatures typically spend far less time developing policies directed at reducing future risks than on policies about emergency response and recovery. At least in part, this is due to the electoral rewards derived from attention and resources paid to emergency response during a disaster (the primary focus of the Stafford Act) and longer-term hazard mitigation and preparedness activities (Bea, 2010; Garrett & Sobel, 2003; F. X. McCarthy, 2010; Reeves, 2011). Governments typically underinvest in preparedness activities due to political pressures, limited budgets, and a lack of immediate payback for such investments, in addition to the uncertainty inherent in investing significant resources in policies and programs that may or may not protect a community if a crisis happens (DeLeo, 2015; Healy & Malhotra, 2009).

Governments may, at times, also learn from past disaster events to improve response, recovery, and planning for future events. Whether or not they learn from past disasters and any failures observed during those disasters is related to several aspects of policymaking important to note here. Birkland argues that learning will take place if a disaster event focuses attention on problems, mobilizes engagement in policymaking by actors, engages various stakeholders in a deliberative process, and eventually culminates in new policies being passed (Birkland, 2004, 2006). Learning from past disasters can also take place through an iterative process wherein a single disaster event may not culminate in learning that leads to changes in policies to reduce vulnerability and prepare for various types of events, but over time multiple events may achieve that goal.

To achieve the dual goals of holding executive agencies accountable and learning from mistakes or experiences of past disasters, legislatures can draw upon their oversight power to investigate, hold hearings, and produce after-action reports to understand failures, successes, and lessons. This was the case under both the 9/11 Commission, which found problems with communication and coordination in the intelligence community that contributed to failures to prevent the attacks on 9/11 (Kean, 2011), and the Hurricane Katrina Commission, which determined that government failures resulted from multiple factors, including coordination among agencies and jurisdictions (state and federal, for example) and initiative taken by individuals and agencies that had the power and resources but did not adequately respond to the disaster (U. S. Congress House. Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for, and Response to Hurricane Katrina, 2006). Unfortunately, the policy changes made in the wake of both of these legislative oversight processes added:

layers of law . . . on top existing regulations without amending previously laws or revisiting the assumptions upon which they rest. This has produced a system where disasters are governed by multiple regulations—the Stafford Act, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, and the National Response Framework – meaning a disaster can simultaneously be declared a Major Disaster, a Catastrophic Incident, and an Incident of National Significance, and be responded to in accordance with the provisions of all of those laws.

(Moss, Schellhamer, & Berman, 2009, p. 15)

In both of these instances, the legislative oversight functions resulted in learning and policy changes with the goal of improving response and preparedness for disasters, albeit changes that are imperfect in nature. Yet most natural disasters in particular are much smaller in scale than these two catastrophes and are therefore unlikely to result in such attention and sustained investigation or deliberation about failures of policy. Rather, scholarship indicates that policy learning is somewhat rare after disasters (Birkland, 2004; O’Donovan, 2017) and that disaster policy domains are likely to be influenced significantly by expert actors or technocrats (Birkland, 2004; Birkland & Warnement, 2014), which can stymie the learning that is encouraged by incorporating new information or perspectives from a variety of actors and experts (Heikkila & Gerlak, 2013).

In the context of hazards and disasters, government budgeting and spending is one of the well-studied areas of policy research. Research indicates that there are significant political rewards associated specifically with disaster spending. Voters reward incumbent presidents who respond to disasters quickly with government spending, but they do not reward those who increase government spending on disaster preparedness and mitigation (Healy & Malhotra, 2009). This is not a phenomenon unique to the United States, as researchers have found similar electoral reward structures in other nations, including India (Cole, Healy, & Werker, 2012). Disaster relief spending does not need to go through the normal lengthy congressional approval process in the United States and therefore can be quick and less conflict-prone, but it focuses almost exclusively on emergency response and rebuilding rather than on preventing future disasters or reducing vulnerability through resilient planning (Donahue & Joyce, 2001). To trigger federal disaster relief funding and other assistance, a presidentially declared disaster is required under the US Stafford Act (Stafford Act, 2000), which therefore gives the president more authority and influence over this type of budgeting than would normally happen through traditional budget appropriations processes (F. X. McCarthy, 2010).

Executive Role in Natural Hazards Policy

The executive functions of government in natural hazards policy, unlike the legislative functions, are clearly differentiated by the phases of the disaster cycle in Table 1. These are more varied between nations than the legislative functions due to the different powers ascribed to presidents and prime ministers across nations. The executive role in natural hazards policy in the United States includes two important functions: (1) the authority of the executive to declare disasters, and (2) the potentially vast response and relief functions of government agencies that are triggered by such a declaration. Through the passage of forward-looking legislation to prepare for crises and disasters, the US Congress effectively granted vast power to the president to declare and allocate funds to disasters. The competition, then, between the legislative and executive branches of government in natural hazards policy arises from this uncomfortable tension between Congress’ delegation of authority and its discomfort with delegating such authority to the president, who does not enjoy such latitude under normal government operations.

The power of the US president and the role of disaster declarations have been well studied. The Stafford Act expanded the power of the president to declare disasters and trigger federal disaster relief assistance (Reeves, 2011). In 1988, Congress expanded the president’s power to declare disasters with no approval or oversight of the declaration decision. The power and discretion assigned by the Stafford Act have led to a politicization of disaster assistance over time, as presidents reap electoral rewards from disaster assistance and are not required to justify their declaration decisions (Garrett & Sobel, 2003; Reeves, 2011). Disaster declarations have increased over time, but a particularly sharp increase is seen since 1988, which can be attributed to substantial development in risk-prone areas, climate change, and the heightened political nature of the declaration process under the Stafford Act (Kousky & Shabman, 2013).

It is important to note that 9/11 has been described as a “paradigm shift” in crisis management (Lagadec, 2007), not just in the United States but also globally. Through implementation of the Stafford Act and subsequent laws intended to correct past failures, US government agencies must still respond to crisis events, but their scope and function have changed significantly in the post-9/11 era. In particular, those agencies and functions focused on natural hazards and disasters have been marginalized (Birkland, 2009; Tierney, 2007). After September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was created in an attempt to rectify the coordination problems that led to the 9/11 attacks (Kean, 2011; Kettl, 2007; Tierney, 2007). According to Tierney,

among the effects of these actions are a decrease in emphasis on preparedness and response for natural and technological disasters; an increase in the role of law enforcement agencies and the military in the management of domestic emergencies, accompanied by a decline in the importance and influence of the emergency management profession; and an increase in the importance of “special purpose” initiatives that have the potential for interfering with efforts to develop comprehensive, integrated all-hazards approached to managing extreme events.

(Tierney, 2007, p. 412)

The homeland security focus and missions of government agencies have assumed preeminence globally, and in the United States this was most clearly observed in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the reorganization of the intelligence and security agencies, and the new role of FEMA, which no longer enjoys de facto cabinet status with direct communication to the president (Tierney, 2007). The modern chain of command in the US government regarding disaster response and relief significantly reduces the prominence of the single agency charged with responding to and providing relief for natural disasters.

The executive role in natural hazards policy is complex. On the one hand, the executive has been delegated significant authority to prepare for, declare, respond to, and provide relief for disasters. On the other hand, the governmental authority specifically focused on natural hazards and disasters has decreased in formal and informal power since 9/11, and subsequent failures of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina provided no solid justification for increasing the role, resources, and prominence of FEMA, thereafter viewed as an agency riddled with problems.

Much of this discussion has been focused on the priorities of the executive branch in crisis or disaster response and recovery. In the non-emergency phases of the disaster cycle—such as mitigation and preparedness—where policies are made and budgets are allocated according to traditional legislative procedures, the posture of the executive branch is more likely to regain its traditional roles and limits of power. Not only do these issues of hazard mitigation and disaster preparedness play out on longer-term horizons and are therefore amenable to normal policymaking procedures, but there are not the electoral rewards associated with action in these policy areas that would incentivize the executive to reach for power the same way that emergency response and disaster relief capacities do.


This article has argued that there is a tension between the legislative and executive branches of government that is especially pronounced in the context of natural hazards and disaster policy. While legislative authority is supreme in democratic policymaking, the legislature must delegate an unusual amount of authority to the executive branch in order to provide the necessary resources to respond to disasters when they strike. Legislative power is then circumscribed to the allocation of emergency spending or oversight functions used to maintain accountability and transparency by the executive branch. These functions, however, can aid in future learning that can inform subsequent policy decisions. The executive branch, then, wields considerable power in disaster contexts, but this has changed dramatically since 9/11 with regard to the overall focus and emphasis of government attention to hazards and disasters, which has marginalized the attention to natural hazards.

The competition that exists between the branches of government primarily focuses on response to and recovery from disasters, which garner significant public and government attention and resources. With regard to mitigation of risks and preparedness for disasters, however, there are fewer political rewards to reap from devoting attention and resources to risk reduction. Therefore, far less government attention to these problems is likely, far fewer resources are expended on them, and the traditional division of authority between the branches of government is more akin to other non-emergency policy domains where long-term policymaking, budget appropriations, and implementation functions govern.

Emerging Trends in Research

As this article has described, there is a wide and interesting body of literature that contributes to scholarly understanding of the tension between various governmental functions and institutions. While this literature allows us to understand the competition between the legislature and executive, scholars only do so through a triangulation of various bodies of scholarship. For example, it is known that electoral rewards are enjoyed by presidents who spend on disaster response and recovery, but it can then only be assumed that the executive does not grab for increased power in long-term risk mitigation and preparedness because of findings related to absence of similar political rewards when presidents focus on these policy issues. There might be other reasons why presidents do not promote policy action in these longer-term natural hazards areas that may have simply not been uncovered yet. To begin to more specifically understand, measure, and predict policy outcomes in natural hazards policy, scholars will need to continue to analyze the various roles, influences, and motivations of the institutions and actors who participate in natural hazards policy. Until that time, scholars much continue to draw from disparate sources to answer the important questions in need of exploration.

Further Reading

Bea, K. (2010). Federal Stafford Act disaster assistance: Presidential declarations, eligible activities, and funding. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.Find this resource:

Birkland, T. A. (2006). Lessons of disaster: Policy change after catastrophic events. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Find this resource:

DeLeo, R. A. (2015). Anticipatory policymaking: When government acts to prevent problems and why it is so difficult. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kettl, D. F. (2007). System under stress: Homeland Security and American politics (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press.Find this resource:

Rodriguez, H., Quarantelli, E. L., & Dynes, R. R. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of disaster research. New York: Springer.Find this resource:


Aberbach, J. D. (2001). Keeping a watchful eye: The politics of congressional oversight. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.Find this resource:

Albright, E. A. (2011). Policy change and learning in response to extreme flood events in Hungary: An advocacy coalition approach. Policy Studies Journal, 39(3), 485–511.Find this resource:

Albright, E. A., & Crow, D. A. (2015). Learning processes, public and stakeholder engagement: Analyzing responses to Colorado’s extreme flood events of 2013. Urban Climate, 14(1), 79–93.Find this resource:

Aldrich, D. P., & Meyer, M. A. (2015). Social capital and community resilience. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(2), 254–269.Find this resource:

Aldrich, D. P., & Ono, Y. (2016). Local politicians as linking social capital: An empirical test of political behavior after Japan’s 3/11 disasters. Natural Hazards, 84(3), 1637–1659.Find this resource:

Aldrich, D. P., Page, C. M., & Paul, C. (2016). Social capital and climate change adaptation. ORE Climate Science. Available online.Find this resource:

Allan, T. R. (1985). Legislative supremacy and the rule of law: Democracy and constitutionalism. Cambridge Law Journal, 44, 111.Find this resource:

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