FEMA Follies; or, Adventures with the Crony Fairy

Bush Administration, FEMA

President Bush was back in New Orleans yesterday, getting his picture taken with disadvantaged black people. It was his eleventh photo-op trip to the Gulf Coast since Katrina.

Bush stopped at a modest bungalow restored by volunteers, situated on a Ninth Ward street still littered with debris and overgrown with weeds. White government trailers that are the main housing for the displaced sat in many front yards. …

… From Williams’ home, Bush’s motorcade took him to a nearby large vacant lot where Habitat for Humanity is building 81 new homes for New Orleans musicians.

Bush, clad in casual blue pants and checked shirt, donned work gloves and a tool pouch as he wandered around the construction site chatting with workers. The president, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin helped raise roof frames onto one house.

Let me get this straight — the politicians want people to know that they’re working hard to restore New Orleans, so they get themselves photographed alongside volunteers? Is that ’cause the government ain’t doin’ shit? So what do we need the politicians for, exactly?

Meanwhile, the Senate spent seven months investigating FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina and came to the brilliant conclusion that the agency should be scrapped. Sort of. Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times,

Just weeks before the 2006 hurricane season officially begins June 1, a Senate committee on Thursday called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be dismantled and reconstituted as a new, stronger agency within Homeland Security.

Many House members, meanwhile, are pushing to restore FEMA to its pre-2003 status as an independent agency, this time with Cabinet rank and additional funding muscle.

So the Senate and the House disagree, and naturally the White House is resisting any big changes at all.

And as President Bush made his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since the storm hit Aug. 29, the White House urged a strengthening — but no reshuffling — of current operations.

“Now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes,” said Frances F. Townsend, the president’s domestic security advisor, who traveled with Bush to Louisiana and Mississippi on Thursday.

I can’t find an exact quote, but yesterday the MSNBC news team shoved a microphone at Bush’s face and asked for his reaction to the Senate’s FEMA suggestion. He said something to the effect that the White House was conducting its own FEMA investigation, and he thought the answer to the problem was making FEMA work better.

Translation: The Bush Administration hasn’t done a dadblamed thing to see to it federal agencies are better prepared for hurricane season than they were last year.

I wish someone would have pressed him to explain what he has done, personally, to improve the problems in our disaster preparedness response. Has he considered any options for reorganizing FEMA and Homeland Security? Did he demand progress reports from FEMA managers showing what measures they are taking to straighten up their act? Has he rattled any cages? Kicked any butts, other than Michael Brown’s? In fact, other than replacing Brown, has any tangible action been taken by the White House at all lo these many months?

Expect the White House to stonewall whatever reform the House and Senate eventually agree on. Any major overhaul of FEMA would be an admission that the original White House organization chart for FEMA was flawed, a mistake. And you know how it is … Bushies don’t make mistakes.

Joe Lieberman was one of the senators behind the proposal to overhaul FEMA but keep it within Homeland Security (he had a lot to do with the original Homeland Security Department proposal, so I guess Holy Joe can’t admit mistakes, either). Bill Walsh of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Lieberman complained of White House stonewalling of the investigation —

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., accused the White House on Thursday of not only failing to cooperate with the Senate’s Hurricane Katrina investigation, but of telling key federal agencies not to turn over documents that he said could have shed light on the botched federal response to the nation’s worst natural disaster. …

… in a 43-page addendum to the committee’s report, Lieberman described a cat-and-mouse game between committee members and White House lawyers over setting up interviews and getting critical documents.

“In too many instances, we faced agencies and departments that saw our efforts as a nuisance — and their response as up to their discretion,” Lieberman wrote. “And the worst offender was the entity that should have stood above the fray and worked hardest with the committee to uncover the government’s failings in Katrina: the White House.”

The White House responded, in effect, that they cooperated a whole bunch and Joe Lieberman is a poopyhead.

Back to the Senate — what the newspapers are calling the Lieberman-Collins proposal calls for FEMA to be dismantled and replaced by a new agency, to be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority. NPRA would communicate directly with the President during a crisis — it’s implied that Michael Brown couldn’t do that because he had to go through NHS director Chertoff — and any big cuts to the budget or staff would have to be approved by Congress. The NPRA would remain under the Department of National Security umbrella, however.

Back to Johanna Neuman

Many in the House, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Katrina that issued its report in February, favor making FEMA a separate agency, with Cabinet rank. …

… In the Senate, many Democrats — including Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who were on the panel that issued the report Thursday — also want FEMA to stand alone, disagreeing with the Collins-Lieberman approach of taking it apart and putting it back together within Homeland Security.

“Unless FEMA has a direct line to the president, the people of Hawaii and the nation are at risk,” Akaka said in a statement. “FEMA must be restored as an independent agency.”

Just to make it all more fun, some Republican congressional leaders, such as Frist in the Senate and Hastert in the House, are making noises that they plan to stick with what the White House wants, whatever that is.

Conclusion: Nothing’s going to happen with FEMA this year, unless a major hurricane hits Virginia and wipes out the DHS headquarters.

Paul Krugman is not hopeful, either. He writes that the Lieberman-Collins proposal would change the agency’s name but not get to the root of what’s wrong with it.

The U.S. government is being stalked by an invisible bandit, the Crony Fairy, who visits key agencies by dead of night, snatches away qualified people and replaces them with unqualified political appointees. There’s no way to catch or stop the Crony Fairy, so our only hope is to change the agencies’ names. That way she might get confused, and leave our government able to function. …

… The [Senate] report points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency “had been operating at a more than 15 percent staff-vacancy rate for over a year before Katrina struck” — that means many of the people who knew what they were doing had left. And it adds that “FEMA’s senior political appointees … had little or no prior relevant emergency-management experience.”

But the report says nothing about what caused the qualified people to leave and who appointed unqualified people to take their place. There’s no hint that, say, President Bush might have had any role. So those political appointees must have been installed by the Crony Fairy.


The Senate proposal calls for the new agency to be staffed by professionals with experience in crisis management. “I guess it’s impossible to select qualified people to run FEMA,” writes Krugman. “If you try, the Crony Fairy will spirit them away and replace them with Michael Brown. But she might not know her way to N.P.R.A.”

Krugman gives us a history of FEMA —

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. FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 perfectly foreshadowed Katrina: the agency took three days to arrive on the scene, and when it did, it proved utterly incompetent.

Many people thought that FEMA was a lost cause. But Bill Clinton proved them wrong. He appointed qualified people to lead the agency and gave them leeway to hire other qualified people, and within a year FEMA’s morale and performance had soared. For the rest of the Clinton years, FEMA was among the most highly regarded agencies in the federal government.

What happened to that reputation? The answer, of course, is that the second President Bush returned to his father’s practices. Once again, FEMA became a dumping ground for cronies, and many of the good people who had come in during the Clinton years left. It took only a few years to transform one of the best agencies in the U.S. government into what Senator Susan Collins calls “a shambles and beyond repair.”

In other words, the Crony Fairy is named George W. Bush.

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  1. justme  •  Apr 28, 2006 @2:55 pm

    With Maha pointing out this is dear leaders 11(!) visit to NO… this seems like the perfect time to make the point that the government and bush enablers are fast to point out that if we dislike the gas prices we should conserve….drive less, drive slower…don’t let the dog hang out the window cause the drag uses more gas,, ect…..but the one person who has a chance to be an example in this department can’t seem to stay his ass in DC and do his Goddamn job….

    This takes the cake for me….tell me to conserve why using the countries credit card to fill up air force one..WTF?????rummy and rice popping into Iraq(like we own the place) on OUR fucking dollar,, and the troops are suppose to be impressed??If they wanted to impress the troops they should have paid for their tickets to fly …..

    Not to mention the ski trips for rummy, trips to crawford,, and SOMEONE had to shuttle the twins from dancing ON A TABLE in a NY bar to fashion week,,, guess who paid for that ??It’s a good bet it was us. Massive SUV convoys to “throw off ” the bad guys so they can’t decide which one is the VIP…..I bet bush has wasted enough fuel to create a crisis on his own.. So when will he step up and pratice what he is preaching?

    We need to stop wasting fuel,, and that means ALL of us,especially when the American people get stuck paying for it…bush reminds me of a flighty child ,, he can’t seem to sit still and focus on a project until it is complete,,, instead he needs to waste tax payer money to fly somewhere to ride his bike….

    Word to the righties,, tell your leader to get over his A.D.D and sit sown at his damn desk and WORK ..I am tired of funding his travel while I cannot fund my own.Park airforce one until further notice!!!

  2. Anonymous  •  Apr 28, 2006 @4:47 pm

    This is my impression of Bush’s photo-op in Biloxi 27 April. He did not meet with the average fed-up Biloxian. There are only twio east-west routes in Gulfport/Biloxi which are U.S. 90 and Pass road. Both were shut down at 2 PM through 4 PM to accommodate this photo-op. Drivers were sent to go in circles like the Bush Administration.The Biloxi natives are irate! They have had it with Bush; the Dick,”Shoot’em if ya’ got’em”; the Administration; Haley Barbour’s upstate cronies whose only interest is the proceeds from the Gulf Coast’s casinos; Chertoff and his entire Homeland Security fiasco; the Loyalist Loyal Republican Women who circulate evacuee hate e-mail by the hour; the eviction threats and dun letters from FEMA; offers to lease FEMA trrailers which are not worth what it cost the Federal Government and are in fact hazardous to live in; the cold callous indifference exhibited by the well-paid representatives of government and Red Cross; the stupidity of having our National Guard in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan while the looters had a free reign; the import of out-of-state law enforcement at high overtime rares who treated the storm victims as criminals; eight months of foot-dragging and false promises from Bush on down. Bush should have gone to Point Cadet then Henderson Point and explain foot by foot why ???? I am waiting. We are not New Orleans with massive media coverage. We are the poorest state in the union. We made a mistake by going Republican because it is party known as, “The Dixiecrats of the Twenty-first Century.”

  3. Alex  •  Apr 28, 2006 @11:55 pm

    I’ve blogged some more on the background of FEMA here.

    Also significant is this story.
    Nobody wants the job as FEMA head. They don’t want it because they know that FEMA isn’t going to be ready for this year’s hurricane season, and because they aren’t being offered authority to do the job right – to dump the cronyism appointees.

  4. Steve from Canuckistan  •  Apr 29, 2006 @7:15 am

    Joe Lieberman is almost as big a phony as Bush. He should have his org charts taken away from him. Wasn’t he the guy that proposed the creation of the hapless DHS in the first place?