Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 14, 2009

Fight over FEMA begins to fulminate

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Philip J. Palin on April 14, 2009

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.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2009 @ 10:28 am

As a frequent commentator on this blog’s posts a number of people have asked me my thoughts on the above, both in and out of FEMA as currently constructed. In adopting Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1958, which was approved by Congress, McKinsey and Co. issued what I believe is a seminal report that covers the totality of what is now domestic homeland security and emergency management. Essentially that report which unfortunately is not available virtually adopted the postion that only the President can adequately design a domestic crisis management system that he/she is comfortable with and all of the authority related to that critical activity should be vested in the President and he/she should delegate accordingly. FEMA has two primary missions NOW. First to give out money to the STATES and its subgrantees in declared Presidential disasters and emergencies and also fund mission assignments to other federal agencies. That FEMA system now is awkward and plagued with disfunction. This was true both when FEMA was independent and now. The second primary mission of FEMA as now constituted is provision of accurate information, including assessments and PAR’s (Public Action Recommendations) as part of its warning and Emergency Public Information role (this latter is NOT Public Affairs works as normally viewed in the federal government). Okay how does it do on this second key mission. Awful in my judgement just as it did for the bulk of the time when FEMA was independent and even worse now. These two missions have really never been reviewed by Congressional oversight–note that the oversight of the key statute is not in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee or the House Homeland Security Committee but elsewhere. It could however be done since the Committees with oversight of the Stafford Act are not in any way concerned with the technical assistance mission of FEMA but only its finanical assistance mission. The more money doled out the better as far as that Committee which cultural outlook is public works and economic stimulus even when non-sensical. This system has existed since 1950 with categories of eligible recipients being expanded more and more as STATE and LOCAL budgets tighten and the vargaries of the federal financing of STATE and LOCAL systems has grown. In 1940 their were less than 3M STATE and LOCAL employees including public safty. Now there are almost 40 M STATE and LOCAL employees and contractors and at least 1/2 despite what Paul Light thinks are directly or indirectly involved with administration of federal funds. Many think free federal disaster relief destroys any semblance of wisdom in mitigation, planning, or self-reliance and that it is a direct incentive to increase STATE and LOCAL negilgence and directly or indirectly benefits the property/casualty insurance business because FEMA has never enforced either its STATE self-insurance rules or its duplication of benefits rules.
Okay so if it makes no real difference in or out then why make another change? I would argue that the real need is to take the NFIP out of DHS because that program (National Flood Insurance Program) once headed by a PAS is now poorly served in FEMA. Note that oversight of that program is the Banking Committees when it should be the Science Committees. It is not an insurance program but one of the key federal land use programs. We all know Mother Nature does NOT grant variances.
But hey this discourse is fun, highly repetive, has gone on forever and almost always forgets that FEMA was supposed to be a one-stop shopping agency for STATE and LOCAL governments that were caught by the financial necessities of unplanned and unfinanced catastrophes. Congress and the Executive Branch know the issues but again the need to have a blurry ineffective system where all can point the blame at someone else instead of one with accountablity means that politicians love disasters except when they don’t love them because it is revealed they have no idea what they are doing, which of course is often. MONEY WILL NOT FIX ALL THE CONSEQUENCES OF DISASTERS but the pols always think more and more will help. What is necessary is the application of brain power and of course this is seldom done.

Comment by Arnold

April 14, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

I’d like to take a shot at reading the tea leaves/making predictions.

I think FEMA stays in DHS and the HSC is folded into the NSC–and perhaps that is likely to be the “deal” presented to relevant members of Congress.

Some of the homeland security heavyweights–Lieberman, Collins, Thompson, etc.–have come out very strongly against taking FEMA out, while have merely expressed reservations about the HSC being subsumed into the NSC.

With Fugate going to FEMA, you have a strong and experienced EM leader who fulfills in part what Michelle Obama described today during her visit as the President’s concern about the agency: “The president is committed to ensuring that FEMA has the leadership and resources needed to fulfill that very important mission”

Another hint at how the Administration looks at policy problems (though it does not mention homeland security) comes from today’s Washington Post profile of Mona Sutphen, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy: “As a respected foreign policy thinker in a job coordinating President Obama’s vast domestic policy agenda, she embodies the way this administration blurs the line between the two, believing that issues such as public education, regulatory reform and economic recovery no longer stop at the water’s edge.”

Now that March Madness is over, perhaps HLS Watch can start a “homeland security organization bracket.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 15, 2009 @ 10:17 am

Fully agree with ARNOLD that domestic policy no longer stops at the Waterline. Also national security never stops at the Waterline either. A complex world growing more and more complex. Makes the cold war look easy. I firmly believe the US days of at least thinking it controlled its own fate, and largely electing domestically oriented Presidents is now largely over. But how do you get Senators and Governors substantial foreign policy experience? Well lets start with looking at language ability, time spent in foreign countries and even education training and other experience. Upgrade STATE department. Assign all Ambassadors based on language ability, experience internationally, and never but never based on campaign contributions. Give more money to STATE. Do you remember in the early days the Secretary of STATE job was the stepping stone to the Presidency itself. Well, maybe again with Hillary when Biden decides the travel routine as VP is too strenous and the President needs a highly qualified replacement. Remind me again, but if Cheny was “Angler” was is Biden? Fish or cutbait?

Pingback by Homeland security this week | Homeland Security Watch

April 20, 2009 @ 4:22 am

[…] 11:00 am (eastern) The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on An Independent Fema. (Relevant prior posting) […]

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