Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, have done the nation a good service. Sadly, it may not mean much in the long run.
Collins and Lieberman, who believe in civility as they work on homeland-security issues, do not engage in the petty partisanship that has become the hallmark of Capitol Hill. After Sept. 11, 2001, they have tried to sort out the unbelievably stupid bureaucratic wrangling that has made a mockery of the nation’s domestic-security efforts.
Despite their experience, they were stunned by the scope of the goings-on at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the now-notorious body that helped botch the response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,300 people, caused billions of dollars in damage and all but destroyed New Orleans.
Having once been considered a premier agency, set up in 1978, FEMA was known for talented, dedicated federal employees (2,600 of them). Now, FEMA should be abolished, the two senators announced at a stunning news conference. The demoralized, dysfunctional agency is broken and can’t be fixed, they said.
Having studied for eight months what happened after Katrina struck, having read 838,000 pages of documents, interviewed 320 experts and held 22 hearings, the two members said they were aghast at the failure of leadership at all levels of government, from the White House on down.
Collins, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, must have raised a groan from the president’s men when she said, “We found clear evidence of failures in planning, failures in decision-making, a failure to create an effective, coordinated national response system, and most of all, a failure of leadership at all levels of government.”
Lieberman said the title of the report, “A Nation Still Unprepared,” says what has to be said. He insisted, “Failures of leadership and government cost lives and multiplied the anguish of the storm’s survivors.”
The many critics of the senators’ mammoth report say that abolishing the $4.8 billion-a-year FEMA but leaving its proposed successor, which would be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority, inside the mammoth Department of Homeland Security is tantamount to doing nothing.
They cite compelling testimony from one of the nation’s best directors of FEMA, James Lee Witt, who argues that the agency was doing well as an independent, Cabinet-level office. It failed, he insists, when it was buried in the Department of Homeland Security, where it suffered from insufficient funds, an unclear mandate, bureaucratic backstabbing and politicization with incompetent managers such as Michael “You’re doing a heckuva job” Brown at the helm.
But Collins and Lieberman are shrewd enough to know that although FEMA must be shaken up from top to bottom, creating federal response machinery for natural disasters and another for terrorist attacks is not feasible. The nation does not have the money, time or will to do that. After all, these are the two legislators who spearheaded the creation of the Homeland Security Department, one of the largest ever. And the White House opposes any move to make FEMA independent again.
The senators’ proposal would give a new director of a newly named agency direct access to the president during a disaster. Great idea. It would also create regional strike teams to move in for immediate assistance. Collins said she was thunderstruck to find out that after Katrina hit, New England rescue personnel were rushed to the scene knowing nothing about the local geography, the culture or the officials in charge. “The last time that officials should be exchanging business cards is in the midst of a crisis,” she admonished.
As Collins and Lieberman were warning that the nation is still not prepared for another disaster and laying out 86 concrete recommendations for change, President Bush was making yet another tour of ravaged Louisiana, his 11th, a month from the start of a new hurricane season.
“If you’re interested in helping the victims of Katrina, interested in helping them get back on their feet, come on down here,” he urged Americans, trying to spur volunteerism.
But the far louder message of the day was that another devastating hurricane or terrorist attack could happen this summer, and the nation would not be ready to deal with it. Recent congressional hearings have also revealed that four and a half years after 9/11, first-responders still can’t communicate with each other because their equipment is not compatible.
It’s head-bangingly frustrating that despite all the finger-pointing, all the misery, all the debate, the lagging recovery and countless studies, nothing is likely to change. Collins and Lieberman do not have much support _ this is a congressional-election year and FEMA is a political football. Unfortunately, the game is just beginning.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)