Divisions arise on whether FEMA requires a tear-down
Bush disagrees with talk in Congress of remaking the agency, in or out of Homeland Security
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
By JOHANNA NEUMAN
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress and the White House are headed toward a collision over one of the big questions left unresolved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — whether to beef up the nation's key disaster response agency within the Department of Homeland Security or to create a politically independent agency to handle national emergencies.
Just weeks before the 2006 hurricane season officially begins June 1, a Senate committee on Thursday called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be dismantled and reconstituted as a new, stronger agency within Homeland Security.
Many House members, meanwhile, are pushing to restore FEMA to its pre-2003 status as an independent agency, this time with Cabinet rank and additional funding muscle.
And as President Bush made his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since the storm hit Aug. 29, the White House urged a strengthening -- but no reshuffling -- of current operations.
"Now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes," said Frances F. Townsend, the president's domestic security advisor, who traveled with Bush to Louisiana and Mississippi on Thursday.
The disagreement is a direct echo of the debate that erupted after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the White House initially resisted congressional efforts to reorganize all domestic security and disaster preparedness agencies under one roof. The White House eventually agreed to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which united 22 separate programs, employing more than 170,000 people, in March 2003.
This time, the debate takes place in an election year, when politicians facing the voters are under pressure not just to write reports about what went wrong but to take action to fix the problems. Adding to the unpredictability is the deep divide within both political parties over the best course of action.
There is one significant point of agreement: FEMA botched the federal response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast and left hundreds of thousands homeless. So far, the federal tab for relief and reconstruction costs has reached $100 billion.
"FEMA is discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued its recommendations Thursday. "It is beyond repair. Just tweaking the organizational chart will not solve the problem."
Collins, the panel's chairwoman, and its ranking Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are proposing that FEMA's functions be absorbed into a new agency, the National Preparedness and Response Authority, which would remain under the secretary of Homeland Security but have broad jurisdiction and direct access to the president during crises.
"This will be a dramatically different agency from FEMA," Colins said.
But Collins and Lieberman, who plan to start drafting legislation next week, face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) shares the White House view that this no time for a reorganization.
"We're very leery, headed into hurricane season, of rewriting the entire FEMA operation," said a Frist spokesman who asked not to be identified when discussing party issues. "As the storms come ashore, FEMA personnel would be diverting time to testify on a rewrite."
Many in the House, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Katrina that issued its report in February, favor making FEMA a separate agency, with Cabinet rank.
"Re-branding FEMA doesn't fix the problem, it just puts a new acronym on it," said David Marin, the select committee's director and a Davis spokesman.
Defenders of the Senate proposal say it is being mischaracterized. The new agency's "leaders would have to have emergency management experience, which would put an end to the Bush administration's penchant for rewarding political types with important security jobs," said a Senate staffer who asked not to be identified when discussing the issue.
And a bipartisan group of congressmen -- including Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman and the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, respectively -- on Thursday endorsed legislation, along the lines of the Senate recommendation, to keep an enhanced FEMA within Homeland Security to ensure that it has all the resources of the larger department, such the Coast Guard and the operations center.
"FEMA must be equipped with the proper resources, communications and leadership to handle a worst-case scenario," King said.
But many House Republicans are divided on the issue. The House is planning to devote the last week in May to Katrina-related issues -- and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is inclined to support the White House approach of strengthening FEMA without changing its operational status within Homeland Security, said one House aide who requested anonymity when discussing the leadership's strategy.
But Hastert also knows, said the aide, that members on the House side "are very sensitive to the need to be seen as doing something -- not just putting out reports" and that the proposal to restore FEMA as a separate agency is vastly popular. "If it came to the floor today it would get 400 votes," the aide said.
In the Senate, many Democrats -- including Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who were on the panel that issued the report Thursday -- also want FEMA to stand alone, disagreeing with the Collins-Lieberman approach of taking it apart and putting it back together within Homeland Security.
"Unless FEMA has a direct line to the president, the people of Hawaii and the nation are at risk," Akaka said in a statement. "FEMA must be restored as an independent agency."
And in the White House, Bush is still trying to recapture his credibility, which crumbled during the disaster. Lieberman singled out the president for being "surprisingly detached" until two days after Katrina hit, when the White House began to marshal the full resources of the federal government.
"President Bush won our admiration and gratitude for the way he took charge in responding to the attacks against America of Sept. 11," said Lieberman. "In the case of Hurricane Katrina, he failed to provide that same presidential leadership when it was needed, and America suffered."
During his visit to the Gulf Coast on Thursday, Bush put on gloves and a carpenter's apron in New Orleans' devastated 9th Ward and grabbed a hammer to pound a few nails for a Habitat for Humanity project to build 280 housing units.
"What we need to do is take recommendations and make sure, as hurricane season approaches, that FEMA and all branches are ready to respond," he told Brian Williams of "NBC Nightly News." "I know my job is to work with relevant agencies and get them ready."