Next week Congress will return from its two week break. On Thursday, April 23 the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing titled, “An Independent FEMA: Restoring the Nation’s Capabilities for Effective Emergency Management and Disaster Response.”
The hearing is likely to lean in favor of HR 1174, the FEMA Independence Act of 2009. Section 101 of the bill specifies:
- (a) In General- The Federal Emergency Management Agency is established as a cabinet-level independent establishment in the executive branch.
- (b) Mission- The primary mission of the Agency shall be to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from hazards by leading and supporting the Nation in a comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.
James Oberstar (D-MN), the House committee chairman, has said, “Oversight hearings held by our Committee since 2003 have shown a clear correlation between the absorption of FEMA into DHS and the deterioration of FEMA’s effectiveness. It is shameful that, to this day, many citizens and communities in Louisiana have still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. This bill restores FEMA’s ability to be a nimble and effective response agency separate from and independent of DHS.” HR 1174 has 26 co-sponsors.
In the Senate, Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is also pushing for an independent FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Advancement Act of 2009 (S.412) would give an independent FEMA an expansive mission: “The primary mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, by leading and supporting the Nation in a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.” Senator Inhofe has not recruited any co-sponsors.
S.412 has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, where both the Chairman and ranking member have expressed doubts regarding further FEMA reorganization. But other committee members, including Mary Landrieu (D-LA), have expressed potential support for spinning-out FEMA from DHS.
When Craig Fugate appears before the Senate committee for his confirmation hearing, whither-goest-FEMA is certain to be a topic. During both the Napolitano and Lute hearings a scripted non-answer was offered by administration candidates. The administration would almost certainly prefer to punt on the issue and wait for the results of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review due out in December. But something more definitive will be expected from the FEMA Administrator nominee.
The Homeland Security community is divided on the issue of FEMA independence. The Obama campaign was also divided on the issue. Yesterday, a recent FEMA senior official editorialized, “The post-Hurricane Katrina FEMA and its recent changes are just now taking hold. The last thing it needs at this critical time is the distraction of yet another reorganization.” This seems to be the core argument of many opposed to independence.
In the weeks ahead floods, hurricanes, wildfires and worse will compete with Congressional committees for the attention of FEMA leadership. Never underestimate the fury of a Congressman (or woman) scorned.