Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) Wednesday at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Paul said FEMA should never have been established in the late 1970s, because it “just conditioned people to build where they shouldn’t be building.”

“There’s a much better way of doing it,” Paul said. “I mean, this whole idea that the federal government can deal with weather and anything in the world, just got to throw a government there — FEMA’s broke. They’re $20 billion in debt.”

(The $20 billion figure refers to FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which is several billion dollars in debt.)

Asked Thursday about Paul’s comments during a previously scheduled interview, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate initially said, “I’m too busy working on other stuff. Ask that to somebody who would give you the time and day to answer that.”

When pressed, Fugate added: “We will carry out and implement the programs that Congress passed. And at such time, if Congress changes that law and programs, we will comply with the federal law.”

Paul’s comments echo a line used often by libertarians who question why the federal government should be assisting states, counties, cities and Indian tribes in preparing for or cleaning up after disasters.

In fairness, Paul didn’t call for the immediate closure of FEMA, and noted, “A lot of people pay the [necessary] insurance. I work real hard to make it work, and I did that in my district, too.”

Instead, Paul suggested that cutting air conditioners at U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq — which some outside experts estimate costs about $20 billion annually — could help right-size FEMA’s finances.

“Cut that $20 billion out, bring in -- take $10 [billion] off the [federal] debt, and put $10 [billion] into FEMA or whoever else needs it, child health care or whatever. But I’ll tell you what, if we did that and took the air conditioning out of the Green Zone, our troops would come home, and that would make me happy.”

(A side note: The Federal Eye spent the summer in Baghdad and frequently visited Baghdad’s Green Zone. Let there be no doubt: Turning off the air conditioning wouldn’t help matters much.)

Businessman and presidential candidate Herman Cain took issue with Paul’s criticism of FEMA. “Don’t eliminate FEMA. Let’s fix FEMA,” Cain said. “Let’s fix Homeland Security.”

Indeed, almost 10 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, talk of fixing the Department of Homeland Security grabbed a notable amount of airtime Wednesday night.

The debate’s moderators asked about DHS in light of comments written by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in his book, “Fed Up!” that said it was “unprincipled” for GOP lawmakers to vote in favor of establishing DHS.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who voted to establish the department, defended his decision Wednesday, saying it was necessary, because, “We had no information sharing that was going on. This was right after 9/11. We saw the problems created as a result of 9/11. And we put together a plan to try to make sure that there was better coordination.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that though he helped develop the plans for DHS, “It hasn’t been executed well.”

Regardless, “we have enemies who want to use weapons against us that will lead to disasters on an enormous scale,” Gingrich said. “And the original goal was to have a Homeland Security Department that could help us withstand up to three nuclear events in one morning.”

“We need to overhaul and reform the department,” Gingrich added, “but we need some capacity to respond to massive events that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Paul also blasted the Transportation Security Administration, saying, “We should have never had it. There’s a much better way of doing it.”

“I would think the airlines should treat passengers as well as a company that hauls money around, and they -- they protect their money,” Paul said later. “They have private guards. And -- and they could do it.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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