House of Cards: The FEMA Storyline

Stop. House of Cards Season 3 Spoilers Ahead!

Like the rest of Netflix-subscribing Americans, I spent this weekend unapologetically binge-watching House of Cards Season 3. As I sat there watching, scheming ways to become more like Claire and wondering about Meechum's unrevealed back-story, I unexpectedly faced a storyline relevant to this blog.

Recap: Borderline tyrannic President Frank Underwood's, legacy and future campaign relies on the funding of his jobs plan, America Works. America Works would create 10 million jobs in the US (for the merits of the plan see this Vox analysis). Facing uncooperative republicans and a hostile democratic leadership it seems as though Underwood won't be able to find the billions required to fund his plan. Underwood partners with the mayor of D.C. and creates a truly genius scheme.

At a press conference with a cheering crowd the mayor of D.C. gives an impassioned speech explaining: 

"Seventeen years I served the Metro Police. I've seen robberies and murders. I've seen the blight of drugs. I've seen little kids whose only meal each day was the one they get at school. You know what's at the root of all that? Folks don't have jobs! There are 60,000 unemployed people in Washington. It's a disaster. And it's a disgrace here in the nation's capital. So this morning, at the president's urging, I am declaring a state of emergency in the District of Columbia. And I am formally requesting three billion dollars from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to put people back to work. "  

The frame cuts away to Senator Birch, a member of the democratic leadership who exclaims, "motherfucker". Securely 5 hours into my binge, yes, I too screamed several expletives. 

If I can’t scrape the money together behind the scenes, I’ll rob the bank in broad goddamn daylight.
— Underwood

It turns out Underwood had already pressured the Secretary of Homeland Security to resign, and informed the FEMA Administrator he would be reporting directly to the President (a la FEMA's pre- 9/11 cabinet level days). Underwood goes to meet with the head of FEMA, Fugate, oh, I mean Mr. Silva who, to his credit, pushed back admirably.  Underwood claimed the funds and dramatically set up tents, staffed by FEMA employees in the middle of D.C. and started handing out jobs to anyone who needed one. 

It’s a perversion of the Stafford Act and you know it.” - Senator
”It’s a reading of the Stafford Act. We read it differently” - President
”You can’t just raid funds that Congress appropriated for a specific use, then use them however you want.” - Senator
”Clearly, I can.” - President
”This is a direct challenge to Congress Mr. President. Bob and I have agreed. Both parties will fight you on this. - Senator
”Well at least I’m cultivating bipartisanship. - President


The Stafford Act, passed in 1988 expanded the power of the president to make declarations. Sylves (2008) writes, "it imposed fewer restrictions on the types of disasters for which the president could issue a declaration... the Stafford Act allows presidents to add new categories of emergency as deemed necessary" p.79 

As noted in the show, the Stafford Act defines emergency as, 

any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, Federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.
— p. 2

The Stafford Act gives the president, "wide discretion to determine whether the disaster or emergency is of sufficient size to warrant federal disaster or emergency assistance." (Sylves, 2008, p.79) and "...a declaration of emergency tends to be more subjective than a declaration of disaster. Emergency declarations sometimes stretch the rule that states must lack the capacity to recover on their own to qualify for a presidential declaration. In times when state and local budgets are tight, an emergency designation offers a flexible path for states to secure help from the federal government for less than catastrophic occurrences." (Rubin, 2012, p. 140) 

When an emergency is declared FEMA and the president can access the Disaster Relief Fund.  "The president's Disaster Relief Fund is important because it allows the president to provide immediate assistance to cover the expense of deploying federal personnel, equipment, and resources..." (Rubin, 2012, p. 139)

A policy report from 2014 reviewed the Disaster Relief Fund and noted the loose definition of emergency and disaster may be a problem for future considerations. 

Some argue that the Stafford Act has enhanced presidential declaration authority because the definition of a major disaster in Section 102(2) of the Stafford Act is, in their view, ill-defined. Because of the expansive nature of this definition under the Stafford Act, they assert, there are not many restrictions on the types of major disasters for which the President may issue a declaration.
— p. 16

The concern in the report was more the increase in presidential declarations in recent years, not a tyrannical, liberal southern but... still. While there's a long list of reasons why unemployment in most cases doesn't constitute a disaster there is a case to be made for it to be an emergency. The case certainly has some holes but the wording of our emergency management - related laws don't exactly make things clear cut. 

The FEMA storyline has not gone unnoticed. FEMA responded today on twitter. 

While this tweet definitely deserves a "well, sure". Obviously FEMA is not onboard with Underwoods plan. Although, please note they don't actually deny that it could happen. Interestingly online bloggers seemed to have missed the meaning behind FEMA's tweet with titles like "FEMA Disputes Major Plot Point" all over the place. A surprising number of people on twitter seemed to have missed that House of Cards is a fictional television show and therefore is not actually based on real life events. But, you know, television has only been around for 100 years, it may take awhile for people to catch on.  

So, could a sitting US president coordinate with a governor and interpret the Stafford Act in the way House of Cards depicted? Yes. Could it happen? I would say yes. Would Congress lose their mind, the public likely be furious, and the president be sued and impeached? Probably. Is it totally far-fetched? Definitely. Will it ever happen? Probably not. Really this whole thing speaks to the need for a clearly defined and agreed upon definitions throughout the discipline of emergency management. 

I am usually not one for fictional mainstream depictions of disasters. I, unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson and space-related movies, do not find their fictional aspects endearing or amusing. Even the tornado episode on the West Wing left me rolling my eyes. But this, this was phenomenal. They even used the terms "disaster" and "catastrophe" correctly!! I say well done on the writing of this episode. Raising a narrative on how the executive branch is forced to take questionable actions in the face of a childish at best, and recalcitrant at worse, Congress (again, is this real life?) while using a plausible, unorthodox application of a relatively obscure law as a foundation. Well done writers, well done.  

(Oh, and if you were wondering, a Cat 3 hurricane threatened the east coast and under political pressure Underwood signed a bill to replenish the depleted disaster relief fund and agree to not use those funds creatively. Because, PR nightmare.) 


1.     Rubin, C. (2012). Emergency Management: The American experience 1900-2010. PERI.

2.     Sylves, R. (2008). Disaster policy & politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press.