WASHINGTON—The much-mocked Federal Emergency Management Agency would cease to exist—replaced by an agency with a greater ability to plan for disasters under a spending bill approved Thursday by the Senate.
The proposal, the result of a seven-month Senate investigation that rebuked FEMA for its fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, would create the U.S. Emergency Management Authority, with direct access to the president during emergencies—akin, its supporters said, to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The agency would stay within the Department of Homeland Security—unlike one of two dueling House bills, which would give the agency standalone, Cabinet-level status.
But even as the Senate measure met with easy passage—it was amended to the Senate bill Tuesday night by a vote of 87-11—its fate in the House is uncertain.
The House Transportation Committee backs an independent agency, arguing that emergency response would be sharper with a standalone agency that reports directly to the president. The committee has circulated a letter from former FEMA director James Lee Witt endorsing FEMA's return to independent status. Witt, a popular director, said independence would allow the agency to act "without waiting for approval or instructions to flow down through layers of bureaucracy."
But proponents of keeping FEMA where it is, including the White House, argue that it would be more effective ensconced in the anti-terrorism agency where it would have better access to resources.
"Removing the agency from the department will only create additional problems, duplications and disconnectedness," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said during floor debate.
The House Homeland Security Committee backs keeping the agency within DHS, a dispute Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, attributed in part to a turf battle over which House committee would oversee the agency's budget.
An independent FEMA would fall under the Transportation Committee.
House Majority Leader John Boehner acknowledged the tug of war between the two committees and said he had yet to choose a side.
Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu said she wasn't taking a position on independence, but she simply wanted "the most effective, streamlined agency possible."
"It's a shame that FEMA's reorganization is tied up in turf battles when people's lives could be on the line," said Landrieu, who backed the Senate measure keeping the agency intact, but also backed an unsuccessful measure by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to pull FEMA out of the homeland security agency. "We shouldn't let the perfect stand in the way of the good."
The chambers won't reach a deal that would affect this year's hurricane season, but Florida's emergency preparedness chief—a veteran of countless hurricanes—said the Senate legislation would improve the agency by restoring its role in preparing for emergencies.
"If FEMA is not the one working with the states they start losing those relationships that start with preparedness," said Craig Fugate. "A big failing has been that the relationship that gets built before an emergency arrives was taken from the agency."
Fugate poked fun at the name change, dubbing it the "Prince effect," for the rock star who changed his name to a symbol, only to be referred to as the "artist formerly known as Prince."
"You know no matter what they call it, it's going to be `The agency formerly known as FEMA,'" Fugate said. "You can come up with different names, but it does nothing to change the outcome."
According to the Senate committee, the bill also requires that the head of the new agency report to the DHS secretary but have direct access to the president on emergency management matters, similar to the role played the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on military issues.
And in a nod to former FEMA chief Michael Brown, whose prior experience as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association drew ridicule, the Senate bill requires that the chief and other agency officials be qualified to hold the jobs.
"It's unbelievable, in many ways, that that has not been the statutory requirement," Lieberman said in remarks prepared for the floor. "To have people who don't have emergency management experience is really irresponsible. In other words, (the new agency) would not be plagued by unqualified appointees as FEMA has been in the past."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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