Most members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee missed a key opportunity to use Craig Fugate’s confirmation hearing as the next FEMA Administrator to help Americans better understand how FEMA will improve under his leadership.
On Wednesday, April 22, 2009, President Obama’s nominee to lead FEMA appeared before the Senate Committee led by CT Senator Joe Lieberman (who, incidentally, presided over a Michael Brown confirmation hearing in 2002). Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has been under significant scrutiny for its capacity to respond to disasters. The GAO, White House, Congress, and a host of other organizations and agencies published reports on recommended improvements for the under-performing agency responsible for coordinating 27 Federal agencies, the American Red Cross, and state and local emergency management agencies under the National Response Framework.
Senators could have quizzed Fugate on FEMA support for local and state emergency plan development, FEMA grant programs to assist communities facing first-responder cuts due to widespread budget deficits, logistics, mass care, communications, disability policy, first responder interoperability, information technology, quality control of contractors, the high-level of successful appeals for individual assistance, FEMA-FCC coordination, FEMA-DOT coordination, FEMA-DOD coordination, FEMA-American Red Cross coordination, FEMA-HUD coordination, Fugate’s controversial support of the previous Administration’s decision to not deliver ice after disasters, and a host of other issues… (click here for pdf of questions)
Instead, the six Senators in attendance (out of 16 on the Committee) asked fewer than 20 questions about:
Lieberman (CT): 1) Cyber-attacks, 2) FEMA staying in DHS, 3) FEMA Regions, 4) Engagement of state and local emergency managers
Collins (ME): 5) FEMA grants to states not in need, 6) pre-during-post-disaster communications
Landrieu (LA): 7) Whether FEMA might allow building police/fire and other critical structures in “V-Zones”, 8 ) Arbitration, 9) the low community disaster loans cap, 10) FEMA developing a trained familiar work-force
Carper (DE): 11) How to pronounce his name and what the W stands for, 12) Low morale in the agency, 13) Priorities, 14) Cutting Red Tape, 15) Dealing with confusing laws
Akaka (HI): 16) FEMA’s low placement on “Best Places to Work” lists”, 17) FEMA’s responsibilities to coordinate other agencies
Burris (IL): 18) FEMA personnel issues, understaffing and turf wars, 19) HUD-FEMA Coordination
Most questions were slow softball pitches and well padded with congratulations. Of course, congratulations are in order. (And, without further delay, congratulations from the Disaster Accountability Project, Mr. Fugate.)
Senators Landrieu and Akaka each asked more than one good question at the Hearing. Senators Collins, Carper and Lieberman might have asked one non-softball. However, missing from the Hearing mix were any questions about FEMA’s recent response to North Dakota and Iowa’s major floods, Arkansas-Missouri-Tennessee-Kentucky’s major ice storm, Midwest Tornados, CA Wildfires, Earthquakes, outstanding issues related to Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, and non-natural events (other than Lieberman’s leading question on cyber-attacks).
Even more astonishing was the absence of key Senators Pryor (AR) and McCaskill (MO) from states affected by recent ice storms. Also missing were Senators Levin (MI), Tester (MT), Bennet (CO), Coburn (OK), McCain (AZ), Voinovich (OH), Ensign (NV), and Graham (SC).
It is important to note that many Senators met with Mr. Fugate and submitted questions in writing. For example, Sen. Landrieu submitted 36 written questions. While still important, the public is largely removed from the process and public confidence in the Agency is not improved when the televised hearing does not include many of the issues of concern to the millions of Americans affected by recent disasters.
If the Senate Homeland Security Committee is going to bother having a confirmation hearing for the top job of an agency with, arguably, record low public confidence and one of the most important functions during our nation’s most difficult and trying times, the Committee members might as well take the nomination seriously and press for answers and reassurance that many since Katrina have been waiting to hear.
After Hurricane Katrina, Congress issued a report titled “A Failure of Initiative.” Could it be that the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is falling into old patterns?