By William Fisher
So, after seven months and 21 separate post-Katrina hearings, testimony from close to 400 witnesses, and review of more than 800,000 documents, the Senators have thrown up their hands in frustration and disbelief and called for the abolition of FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- and its resurrection under a new name.
Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, respectively the top Republican and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform, predictably found "failings" at all levels of government in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, before, during and after the storm hit the Gulf Coast.
The Committee made more than 80 recommendations to begin to solve FEMA's problems. These recommendations concluded that FEMA is "a shambles" crippled beyond repair by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding and called for a new agency - the National Preparedness and Response Authority - to plan and carry out relief missions for domestic disasters.
The new authority would communicate directly with the president during major crises, and any dramatic cuts to budget or staffing levels would have to be approved by Congress. But it would remain within the Homeland Security Department and would continue receiving resources from that department.
Unfortunately, in "gotcha" Washington, what should have been a serious discussion about how to fix FEMA has degenerated into a partisan - and uninformed - debate about whether FEMA should remain part of the DHS or return to its former place as a Cabinet-level independent agency reporting directly to the President.
But that is a faux argument. It is largely irrelevant. The challenges facing both FEMA and DHS involve issues so fundamental that no amount of box-shifting has the slightest chance of fixing the problems. The main issue is not where the boxes are located, but who is in the boxes.
In case you've forgotten, FEMA has been around a long time. It was created by President Jimmy Carter way back in 1979, and by all accounts, it was just as dysfunctional then as now.
During the Reagan years, it was considered largely a weapon in the cold war. It morphed from dealing with natural disasters to planning for nuclear attacks.
In the early 1990's, FEMA's reputation was as bad as it is today. It was a dumping ground for political cronies, headed by a man whose only apparent qualification for the job was that he was a close friend of the first President Bush's chief of staff.
The agency's pitifully inadequate performance during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 should have told us a lot about how it would handle a Katrina-size calamity. For the first three post-Andrew days, the agency was absent. When it arrived, it was clueless about what to do.
But then President Bill Clinton has a unique idea: fix the problem by recruiting experienced leadership. Clinton appointed a seasoned disaster management professional, James Lee Witt, to head FEMA, which he elevated to cabinet rank.
Witt reorganized the office from top to bottom, producing immediate results. And even Clinton's harshest critics - including candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign -- praised the agency's performance.
What Clinton did is exactly opposite to what President George W. Bush has done
When Bush took office, he set out to replace FEMA's experienced staff with political cronies. His choice for director was his campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, who had no experience in emergency management. Veteran staffers were demoralized. Qualified personnel began leaving.
Allbaugh hired his college pal Michael Brown as FEMA's general counsel and then promoted him to deputy director. And when Allbaugh left to join the army of Washington lobbyists, he recommended Brown for the top job, despite his lack of any experience whatever in emergency management. Bush appointed him and, aside from the Katrina debacle ("You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie"), he will be best remembered for passing out FEMA checks to people whose homes weren't damaged in heavily Republican districts in Florida before the last election.
Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, and the president felt the urgent need to be seen to be taking action. He created a new White House office of Homeland Security. To head this key post, he appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, another "friend of Bush". Gov. Ridge, an affable politician, had zero experience in either counter-terrorism or disaster management.
When the behemoth Department of Security was created in 2002 - over the objections of the president -- Ridge was named to head it. Under his command were 22 different government agencies, as many different corporate cultures, and more than 183,000 employees. FEMA was one of the agencies absorbed by the new DHS.
But, as Eric Klinenberg and Thomas Frank wrote in Rolling Stone, "the real damage" began when Bush folded FEMA into the sprawling new Department of Homeland Security." With the department's focus almost exclusively on terrorism, disaster experts and emergency managers found themselves excluded from planning sessions. Military and law-enforcement personnel dominated DHS, imposing a top-down structure built on secrecy and skepticism, which clashed with FEMA's primary function of collaborating with regional agencies in an environment of shared information and mutual trust."
They point out that the cronyism that gave us Tom Ridge as the first secretary of Homeland Security quickly extended to the Bush Administration's buddies in the corporate community." The department's first advisory council was filled by corporate CEOs, many from industries positioned to profit from homeland-security projects.
DHS outsourced billions to private sector contractors, many on a no-bid basis.
With enthusiastic help from the Congressional pork barrel, a substantial part of DHS's funding was wasted on programs that rewarded "red states" and treated Wyoming and New York as if they faced equal threats of terrorism.
Issues that the 9/11 Commission identified as being critically important were neglected. The result, as we saw during Katrina, was that five years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Louisiana - and most other states - still lacked the interoperable radio systems to allow first responders to communicate with one another.
Other parts of DHS were equally wasteful. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) spent billions fighting yesterday's wars by snatching nail clippers from airline passengers while largely ignoring, for example, port security.
And before the flood waters had receded from New Orleans, the president gave us added confirmation that cronyism was still alive and well by nominating the niece of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, to head the DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation (ICE). ICE and its predecessor agencies have always been seen as wildly dysfunctional. Now the president put its 20,000 employees and $4 billion budget in the hands of an appointee with no expertise in the field.
Running DHS was always going to be an extremely difficult job. Running it without world-class leadership was unarguably an impossible job. Here was a monster that cried out for the talents of a Jack Welch, who brilliantly managed a similarly huge and varied enterprise known as the General Electric Company. Instead, it got a party political crony named Tom Ridge.
Ridge will probably best be remembered as the man who brought us the highly informative terrorist threat color-codes - that many charge he used to exploit terrorist fears by creating fake red alerts.
When Ridge left after the 2004 election, the President first named former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, a tough-talking cop who was a partner in former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's private security firm. But Kerik, it was soon revealed, had forgotten to pay his "nanny-tax" and his name was withdrawn. The nod then went to Michael Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor who had headed John Ashcroft's Criminal Division in the Department of Justice before Bush nominated him to be a Federal Judge.
I'm sure Secretary Chertoff is a very smart guy, but like his predecessor, he has zero experience in managing anything larger than a few Justice Department hundred lawyers and support staff.
Six months after his confirmation, the unthinkable happened: DHS and FEMA had to demonstrate their ability to deal with a catastrophic natural disaster: Katrina. And we are all too familiar with how that turned out.
But the DHS and FEMA were not alone in abdicating responsibility; Congress bears a large share of the blame. DHS was obliged to report to dozens of different congressional committees because Congress refused to reorganize its oversight, the same way it did during the consolidation of the intelligence community.
What so many congressional committees did with so many hours of testimony is near nothing. Members protected their turf, ignoring the many critical reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the failing grades contained in the 9/11 Commission's "report card".
Congresspersons made lots of speeches and did a lot of showboating. Republicans led the cheerleading and counseled patience while Democrats hot-dogged dire warnings. In the end - until Katrina - neither party exercised any meaningful oversight. So the cronyism and wasteful spending continued - and continues today.
Post-Katrina, both the House and Senate conducted serious and valuable investigations. But in my view, the Senate reached the wrong conclusion.
Arguably, it might be marginally easier to fix the much smaller FEMA if it was no longer part of DHS - if the Administration is able - and has the political will -- to hire another James Lee Witt, regardless of his or her party affiliation, and give a new leader the resources needed to get the job done. Based on its current unsuccessful recruiting campaign, that prospect doesn't seem very promising. Top professionals in disaster management appear reluctant to become cogs in the DHS machinery.
But whether FEMA is cut loose from DHS or not is not likely to make a significant difference in the performance of either agency. Both will continue to fail until they undertake the fundamental strategic, tactical and managerial reforms they should have begun to address three years ago.
Both agencies need to replace political cronies with highly qualified and motivated leaders and employees - and that requires the cooperation and support of the president. Both need to make large and continuing investments in human capital. Both require improved clarity of mission. Both need to better understand and anticipate impacts of massive government reorganization on the other departments and agencies they need to depend on to be "force multipliers" as they carry out their tasks. Both need to adopt a decision-making process that is clear and transparent to outsiders. Both need to develop strategic plans that have measurable goals and benchmarks to assess progress and correct deficiencies. Both need to build accountability for individuals into their performance evaluations. Both need to develop rapid-response capability. Both need to build more effective relations with state and local agencies. Both need complete independence from the political centers in the Administration. Both need adequate financial resources, allocated according to need and not party politics. And both desperately require real Congressional oversight.
None of this is going to be easy. It is instructive to recall that President Harry Truman's proposals to coordinate the activities of the military services were initially considered by Congress in 1944. His objective was to reduce the inter-service rivalries believed to have reduced military effectiveness during World War II. But the Senate did not confirm James V. Forrestal as the first Secretary of Defense until three years later, waited another two years before giving him needed authority over the Army, Navy and Air Force, and thus opened the door to the "jointness" of the current Department of Defense (DOD).
And that job is still a work in progress, far from complete. The DOD's annual budget is roughly $425 billion, not including the tens of billions more in supplemental expenditures allotted by Congress throughout the year. And, all these years later, it is still the most avid dispenser of huge, often no-bid contracts and the government's most profligate waster of taxpayer money. It has never been able to pass any of the annual audits carried out by its own accountants. Its own Inspector General reports that it has not and will not be able to account for $1.1 trillion of "undocumentable adjustments."
So, with both FEMA and DHS, a measure of patience is required. Change threatens vested interests and is always resisted. It is at this nexus of transformation versus the status quo that presidential leadership is most critical. And we may well have to wait for another president to muster the political will to take it on. Hurricanes, floods and terrorist attacks, however, won't wait.
But clearly the debate is far broader than where to put FEMA, because what ails FEMA also ails the DHS.