According to an online magazine, the choice for the new director of FEMA is down to a shortlist of veteran state emergency management professionals. Not clear what the choice says about the shoe every one is waiting to drop—FEMA in or out of the Department of Homeland Security.
This one is clearly going to be the administration’s call. Neither Senators Lieberman nor Collins who honcho the Senate committee overseeing homeland security would ever let a bill pulling FEMA out of the department see the light of day—but what committees have to say on this matter matters less and less. These days the leadership of both houses legislate behind closed doors and then dump massive omnibus bills with little chance to debate or offer amendments on to the floor. The ruling elites don’t care all that much, but there are a few members who have a passion for pulling FEMA out—if the White House gives the go ahead it could be slipped into the next mother of all bills.
On the one hand, having an independent FEMA might seem attractive to a White House that seems to have penchant for running everything out 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There are so many czars and czarinas on the President’s staff, they may have to rethink the Constitutional prohibition against grants of royalty.
Adding FEMA to the growing long list of direct reports would be a huge mistake. Politicizing FEMA by making it the president’s plaything is how we got into this mess to begin with. It was James Lee Witt who pioneered the idea of launching FEMA deployments every time there was a cat up a tree—thus demonstrating how activist the White House could be. According to one study:
During President Bill Clinton’s two terms, FEMA’s involvement in disasters again increased dramatically. From 1993 to 2000, FEMA was involved in an average of 88 declarations per year– almost triple the average of the previous 12 years. From 1953 to 1992, the total number of declarations issued totaled 1,137, but in only eight years, FEMA issued 707 declarations. During President Clinton’s two terms, FEMA dealt with 33 billion-dollar disasters that caused $143.5 billion in damages and 2,034 deaths. Of these, six were hurricanes, one was an earthquake, and the other 26 were storms, floods, and droughts.
All Bush did was follow Clinton’s lead and call out FEMA even more. As a result, expectations of what the federal government can and should do in a disaster grew completely out of proportion to what the agency could really do—the disaster preparedness version of a Ponzi Scheme. It was all fine till a real catastrophe happened. Unlike Clinton, however, Bush had the bad luck of having an unprecedented disaster on the scale of Katrina.
Going back to the bad old days of the Clinton years would be a terrible mistake. There is plenty of evidence that FEMA is much more robust as part of the Department of Homeland Security.