Congress divided over fixes for FEMA

Competing bills propose conflicting methods

Congress agrees that the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs improvements, especially after its botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the form those improvements should take is far from settled.

Competing bills now in Congress offer radically differing visions. One would restore FEMA to its former status as a Cabinet-level agency, with a leader who has the president’s ear. The other would leave FEMA in the Homeland Security Department and implement smaller-scale changes.

“Putting FEMA, which was once a nimble 2,500-person agency, into a massive bureaucracy of 190,000 workers was a major mistake,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) at a press conference last week. “Congress created the Department of Homeland Security to prevent terrorism. FEMA’s mission of preparing for all types of disasters was neglected by the department.”

Young’s bill, the Restoring Emergency Services to Protect Our Nation From Disasters (RESPOND) Act, would pull FEMA out of DHS. The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.), James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

RESPOND supporters argue that putting FEMA into DHS has led to a drain on both money and talented employees for the agency as those resources get diverted into other homeland security needs.

Advocates of taking FEMA out of DHS believe the RESPOND legislation “would essentially put FEMA on steroids,” as one congressional staff member put it.

Another bill, the National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act of 2006, would make the FEMA director an undersecretary within DHS and the president’s principal adviser on emergency management situations. In those emergencies, the FEMA director would bypass the department’s secretary and go directly to the White House. It would also create local-level collaboration to aid efforts from the bottom up.

Both bills would require FEMA to establish regional emergency operations centers to support response activities.

FEMA was established as an independent agency in 1979 and promoted to a Cabinet-level agency after Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992. In 2003, FEMA became a part of the newly formed DHS.

Democratic and Republican leaders on the House Homeland Security Committee support the National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act, sponsored by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).

“Moving the furniture is just not good enough,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s top Democrat and a supporter of the bill. “We have to fix the internal controls.”

In congressional testimony, the Government Accountability Office avoided taking sides in the debate but suggested that lawmakers use their discussion to consider FEMA’s future.

In testimony before the Homeland Security Committee May 9, William Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, said analyzing and fixing FEMA’s apparent weaknesses is more important than figuring out the best place to put it in the government. He said clarifying its mission, trained and experienced leaders, and financial resources will do more to strengthen FEMA.

Michael Hardy contributed to this report.

**********

Storm over FEMA bills highlights differences

National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act (H.R. 5351):

  • Leaves the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the Homeland Security Department.

  • Creates a process to allow the FEMA director to bypass the normal DHS structure in emergencies.

  • Makes the assistant secretary responsible for cybersecurity and telecommunications.

Restoring Emergency Services to Protect Our Nation From Disasters (RESPOND) Act (H.R. 5316):
  • Makes FEMA an independent Cabinet-level agency.

  • Establishes a minimum of three national response teams and a sufficient number of regional and other response teams with dedicated communications equipment and training.

  • Requires FEMA to maintain and operate a national emergency operations center and regional emergency operations centers to support response activities.

Source: Congressional documents

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above