Thursday, April 27, 2006

Congress: FEMA D.O.A

At the downswing of a now tiresome cycle, a congressional committee has released its findings on another federal disaster. The problem this time: the stunningly slow Hurricane Katrina response. The answer: disband FEMA and start over. Sadly, FEMA was announced D.O.A. today by a bi-partisan Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Some want it to R.I.P., and others believe it can be resurrected. Let’s take a closer look.

FEMA was started in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. The goal was to unify the nation’s federal disaster preparedness programs. In 1993 President Bill Clinton elevated FEMA to a cabinet level position. The first director, James Lee Witt is instituted reforms that helped streamline the agency. In 2003 FEMA was absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security, and there, at some point, it simply died.

Although it had “weathered” a few trial runs, its big DHS unveiling was the Hurricane Katrina response. Americans watched with shock and disbelief as the dysfunctional agency pinched out a lame response that couldn’t even float to the top of the bowl. Who would ever have thought that the new and improved post-9/11 FEMA would be so unprepared for a national disaster?

Former FEMA director Michael D. Brown warned that the absorption into the DHS would “fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions.” He also warned that the reorganization of 2003 would lead to “an ineffective and uncoordinated response” to a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Ah, what did “Brownie” know anyway? While his prognostication may have proved alarmingly accurate, he himself provided a more effective role for high-level bureaucrats: the scapegoat. We all remember how he was paraded up Capital Hill to be mocked and scorned at the hands of congressional leaders and then led out to alter to die for their sins. Sad, really.

Even today officials at the DHS did not seem moved by the Senate committee’s findings. Russ Knocke, the department press secretary commented, "It is time to stop rearranging organization charts and start focusing on how governments at all levels are preparing for the fast-approaching storm season.”

Oh yes, it’s the tried and true “No Hindsight” defense which has been employed numerous times after subsequent disasters. But what officials don’t seem to realize is that maybe what is needed is a massive overhaul of agencies like the DHS. Was that not the same conclusion a recent investigation into the government’s intelligence agencies found?

I think it unfathomable that Republicans, the party espousing smaller government, have allowed things to grow so large and out of control. That is one thing but key agencies seem to have been left out of the feeding frenzy. It was cited that years of under-funding and failed leadership have left FEMA beyond repair.

Where has all this money gone? Let’s rewind the clock back about four years. What if we had never gone to war in Iraq? What if we had just left Saddam crippled under UN sanctions? How much better prepared would we be for hurricane season if some of that $350 billion spent on Iraq was spent on FEMA? Or, while I’m at it, if just a fraction of that were spent on social programs to equip those caught in poverty; those “refugees” displayed so dramatically after Katrina blew our blinders off.

We can’t go back, but maybe we can learn. FEMA, like homes in New Orleans, is so rotted that it should be torn down and rebuilt. As the report said, “We propose to abolish FEMA and build a stronger, more capable structure within (the Department of Homeland Security).” Yes, perhaps one that can withstand a hurricane, or a terrorist attack. Good idea. And sadly, FEMA's decay is right on pace with the rest of our government.

The Republicans are like a badly behaved child, leaving us with the role of parental response. But we are caught in the dilemma: do we give negative behavior attention? Or will that just reinforce it? There’s a principle that says to criticize is to only to give the ineptitude dignity. This is the bind Democrats are caught in. How to they plot a course for the future without addressing all the myriad of problems Republicans have gotten us into? It’s a catch-22.

It’s hard for me to have any faith government. What are you guys doing up there anyway? Did you notice it’s not just the President people loathe, it’s also congress? When the best idea is to give FEMA a new name and rebuild the whole thing, you know we’ve got serious problems. But fear not! DHS director Michael Chertoff, after flushing “Brownie” out to sea, is now busy coming up with a plan to “retool” FEMA. Why do I have zero faith in this?

Perhaps it’s apropos that these findings have been released around tax season. Here’s a word to the government: people aren’t complaining that our taxes are too high, it’s that we can’t see any positive results for all the money we give. We all want effective government. That’s how the Republicans won in 1994. Twelve years later I’ve funded FEMA, the DHS, and all the various congressional committees formed delve into national failures. Things seemed to be stopped-up up but my vote this year will be full of Liquid Plumr. It’s time to clean the refuse out of government pipes. After watching for the last six years I have reached similar findings to the FEMA committee: remove the dead weight and start over from scratch.

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