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.

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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

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