Is Government Up to the Job?

Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, members of Congress are now raising very basic questions about whether the federal government is ready to protect its citizens in the event of a disaster.

The answers will begin trickling in on Wednesday, when a panel of 17 senators opens the first in a string of public hearings into the government’s response to the deadly destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. The investigation promises to dominate the political agenda in Washington in coming weeks, perhaps for months.

With Capitol Hill besieged by complaints from the public, members of Congress _ including prominent Republicans _ are making it clear that the Bush administration has some explaining to do.

“If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack?” asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She will convene this week’s hearing.

“In some sense, not just the Gulf Coast was attacked, but America’s self-confidence,” said Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the government’s sluggish response was embarrassing and inexcusable: “It pains me to admit that people died because aid did not arrive fast enough to those in need.”

The controversy forced the resignation on Monday of Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who suddenly became the most unpopular man in Washington. Brown quit after the administration removed him from his job of managing the relief efforts on the ground in Louisiana and sent him back to Washington.

Only six months ago, after winning praise for his handling of the Florida hurricanes of 2004, a confident Brown told a Senate panel that the United States “is prepared, as never before, to deal quickly and capably with the consequences of disasters and other domestic incidents.”

A growing list of Democrats has been calling for his firing, saying Brown’s bungled response to the hurricane resulted in the deaths of thousands.

With FEMA under a political cloud, many members of Congress say they want to know if the agency is capable of even handling its basic mission.

Plagued by low morale, it ranked last among 28 federal agencies in worker satisfaction, according to a 2003 survey.

Critics say President Bush undermined FEMA by putting his friends in charge and moving the agency to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

“The agency has just been handcuffed,” said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. He introduced a bill last week that would separate FEMA from the department.

Brown’s critics say he was a poor choice for the job, noting that he ran a trade association for horse breeders before taking charge of FEMA. Brown found his way to the top of the agency after he was promoted by his former boss, Joe Allbaugh, who was Brown’s college roommate and Bush’s 2000 campaign manager.

Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., called on the Senate to investigate the qualifications of FEMA’s top appointees, saying “the blatant patronage … is shocking and disgraceful.”

“Apparently the primary qualification necessary to lead the nation’s disaster-relief agency was to have been a major supporter of the president’s 2000 election campaign,” Dayton said.

Feinstein said that FEMA “needs to be devoid of political appointees and employ only the highest-trained individuals.” She called the response “a massive failure of government” at all levels.

“To see the horrific images of the dead lying in the street unattended, bodies floating aimlessly face down in the water and Americans with no choice but to relieve themselves on the field of the Superdome _ it boggles the mind that such depraved conditions descended on one of America’s great cities,” Feinstein said.

Bush said that he supports an investigation but that the immediate focus must be on recovery efforts. So far, the White House is resisting calls for a 9/11-style independent commission to lead an investigation.

In addition to the probe by the Senate Homeland Security committee, Republican leaders in Congress are proposing that a joint House-Senate committee be formed to conduct a separate investigation. Democrats are boycotting that plan, saying it would be impossible for a GOP-led Congress to conduct a credible investigation into a Republican administration.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said investigators must focus on the president’s role and whether his absence from the White House was a contributing factor. Bush spent much of August at his ranch in Texas.

“Why didn’t President Bush immediately return to Washington from his vacation?” Reid asked.

The climate in Washington is a far cry from four years ago, when Republicans and Democrats gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sing “God Bless America” after hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

“It is reprehensible that some elected officials are looking to score political points in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation,” said New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.