Hurricane Katrina was not even a blip on the weather radar when some lawmakers first sounded an alarm.
It was the summer of 2002, less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress was eager to respond in a big way. Lawmakers were poised to create the Department of Homeland Security as an umbrella for a whole host of public safety efforts.
That worried a small but vocal group in Congress.
Some lawmakers warned of a potential disaster if a massive new bureaucracy that was focused on terrorism also included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for responding to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
“You know, when your home is under water up to the eaves, are you going to wonder: ‘Where is FEMA?’ ” Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said at a hearing July 17, 2002. “Are they on some mission looking for terrorists, or are they going to be on a mission looking for your lost children and rescuing you from the rooftop of your home?”
The scenario might have sounded fanciful or alarmist back then. Today, critics say it resembles what happened in the post-Hurricane Katrina chaos.
Even President Bush has called the government’s relief efforts in the Gulf Coast states unacceptable. Now, some lawmakers from both parties blame it on the decision to wrap disaster relief into the Department of Homeland Security, and they’re moving to make FEMA an independent agency again.
“My concern was it would be subsumed in this very unwieldy bureaucratic entity,” Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said. “Most people (now) think what happened was what was predicted would happen.”
In July 2002, Udall supported Oberstar’s amendment aimed at keeping FEMA out of the new Department of Homeland Security.
As Udall explained at the time: “I voted today to leave FEMA outside the new department because I fear FEMA’s current mission and focus will be lost in the new bureaucracy we are creating.”
The amendment failed by a mostly party-line vote of 261-165.
More than three years later, lawmakers from both sides of that 2002 vote are vowing to return FEMA to its status as a stand-alone agency headed by a Cabinet officer who answers directly to the president.
They said such a move would keep its attention, and resources, on helping victims of natural disasters.
“The whole thought behind creating this mega-agency (of Homeland Security) was that it would create better communication,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. “I was worried it would create bigger bureaucracy. In fact, what we’ve seen from the hurricane response, FEMA was not as crisp, not as fast to respond as it should have been.”
DeGette opposed Oberstar’s amendment in 2002. She later opposed the larger bill that created the Department of Homeland Security.
Now, she plans to co-sponsor legislation by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., that would restore the independence of FEMA, and she thinks Congress should also decide whether functions such as the Coast Guard and immigration enforcement really need to be under an anti-terrorism umbrella.
“I think we should look at the whole agency,” DeGette said of the Department of Homeland Security.
At the time, the “prism of terrorism” made agency consolidation seem like a good idea, said Jason Kello, a spokesman for Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.
Unfortunately, Kello said, “It didn’t work.”
Foley, a deputy majority whip, opposed Oberstar’s 2002 amendment on keeping FEMA independent. But when he returned to Washington last week, he started promoting his own version of legislation that would make FEMA a stand-alone agency again.
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com.)