As the House and Senate prepare their respective legislative
strategies for the new Congress, one piece of legislation should be
left off of the agenda--removing the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Stakeholders who enjoyed having more authority and responsibility
under a cabinet-level FEMA are putting pressure on Congress to
remove FEMA from DHS.
But in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress recognized that
stovepipes of authority and responsibility caused delays and
confusion in the days following the attack. It acted by placing
FEMA under DHS leadership in order to foster better integration
between the various stakeholders involved in disaster response. By
taking FEMA out of DHS, Congress would turn a blind eye to the
lessons learned on 9/11. Putting constituent politics over
effective disaster response is a move America can ill-afford.
From Past to Present
During the Clinton years, FEMA became a cabinet-level
agency that reported directly to the President. Various
stakeholders, from emergency managers to law enforcement officers,
were given their own little piece of the homeland security pie.
Regular communication between agencies whose missions intersected
in a disaster was relatively non-existent. Essentially, each
government stakeholder was given its own kingdom and, as a result,
issues were simply sent up through a particular stovepipe to be
handled within that agency.
Contrary to popular belief, FEMA, absent DHS, was not immunized
from criticism over its response efforts. For instance, there was
considerable public outcry over FEMA's response to Hurricane
Andrew, when the organization was decried for not providing
adequate food or shelter for the 150,000 people temporarily left
homeless by the storm.
9/11 as Catalyst
After 9/11, America realized that such an approach caused
confusion over the roles of the particular agencies in a
catastrophic disaster. There were enormous bureaucratic logjams
that led to delays, hindering inter-agency communication.
Determined to take a new approach, Congress, upon the creation of
DHS in 2003, placed FEMA under its jurisdiction. DHS was to act as
a leader--facilitating communication between various stakeholders
so that they could seamlessly interact throughout the "life cycle"
of a disaster--from intelligence aimed at thwarting attacks to
on-the-ground relief in the aftermath.
But groups advocating for change at FEMA have used the DHS-led
response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as an example that this new
approach is not working. While there is no doubt that the FEMA
response to this disaster was wholly inadequate, the shortfalls
associated with Katrina stretched well beyond FEMA. In fact, a
White House report issued on the lessons learned from Katrina
identifies a variety of factors that exacerbated the failed
response, many of which did not stem from DHS--such as the sheer
magnitude of the destruction and inadequate coordination by other
federal agencies. And that report did not delve into the inadequate
state and local response, which has been identified as another
significant source of delayed relief.
A number of successes demonstrate that FEMA has been fixed and
has learned from the lessons of Katrina. FEMA has been applauded
for its response to disasters including the Midwest floods, the
California wildfires, and Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. The agency has
created partnerships with state and local officials and instituted
internal changes, such as more staff and better technology
(including electronic tracking of trucks). Most importantly, under
Secretary Michael Chertoff's leadership, the stakeholders involved
in disaster response have begun to communicate--an achievement
unheard of prior to the inception of DHS.
Not the Kind of Change America
Elevating FEMA would certainly please stakeholders looking for
more access, money, and power on Capitol Hill. But moving FEMA to
cabinet-level status would politicize the agency and turn the clock
back on the progress made since 9/11. As 9/11 demonstrated, access
does not equate to better disaster response. More likely, such a
move would produce unrealistic expectations about the federal
government's role in handling disasters, sending a message that it
is okay for state and local governments not to develop their own
robust programs because "FEMA has it covered"--a notion already
perpetuated through the explosion of federal disaster declarations.
Instead, Congress should:
- Leave FEMA under DHS Leadership. Elevating FEMA only
adds more bureaucracy, making it more difficult to get assets where
they are needed most in the aftermath of an emergency. Such a move
also perpetuates the over-federalization of disaster response--that
all disasters, regardless of severity, need to be handled at the
federal level--by insinuating that FEMA needs the highest
leadership levels at its immediate disposal. This
over-federalization diminishes the ability of state and local
government to take an individualized approach to disaster
- Let the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) Be a
Guide. The QHSR is scheduled to be released in December 2009.
It will be a comprehensive review of agency progress since the
agency's inception and will be a great resource for what changes
need to occur at DHS--and which do not. The Obama Administration
and Congress should wait until the QHSR is released before making
major changes at DHS.
- Reform Congressional Oversight of Homeland Security. The
current congressional oversight structure includes 108 committees,
subcommittees, and commissions with jurisdiction over DHS. Because
of this structure, these committees are often driven by politics
and a desire to please constituents rather than a desire to put in
place policies that are ideal from a security standpoint--thereby
ignoring lessons learned from 9/11. Streamlining oversight into
four committees (two in the House and two in the Senate) and
splitting the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Committee into two separate committees will ensure that Congress
takes a course that is best for Americans--not stakeholders.
Sound Judgment as Guide
Reorganizing a federal agency on the basis of stakeholder
politics is not the kind of change our nation needs in Washington.
Congress and the new Administration must exercise sound judgment in
its decision-making. And in the disaster response world, such sound
judgment includes leaving FEMA alone.
Jena Baker McNeill is
Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.