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Congress Says FEMA Reform Lagging

by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Jan 08, 2007
Lawmakers are frustrated at the lack of progress on a congressionally mandated overhaul of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency that's designed to ensure that the flaws which dogged the failed response to Hurricane Katrina are fixed. In a letter sent late last month to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and released last week, the chairman and ranking members of both the House and Senate homeland security committees complained about being kept in the dark over progress on the changes, which they feared were lagging.

"There are already some indicators that (the Department of Homeland Security) may not be effectively and promptly implementing" the new law, wrote Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Peter King, R-N.Y.

The law effectively reconstitutes FEMA as an independent agency within the department and restores to it the preparedness functions officials had moved to a new directorate. But Chertoff opposed the overhaul, which was included in the must-pass Homeland Security Appropriations law and signed by the president in October, and some on Capitol Hill fear he may be dragging his feet in implementing it.

The letter requests "full and complete briefings" for staff on the implementation of the overhaul law "no later than January 8, 2007."

Lieberman Spokeswoman Leslie Phillips told United Press International last Thursday that the committee had heard no response from the department. "We will give them a courteous amount of time to respond and then decide how to proceed," she said.

Phillips said the letter, and the subsequent decision to release it followed "weeks and weeks of fruitless effort to get briefings."

"It would be fair to say" Lieberman was frustrated, she added.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security denied they were foot-dragging, some privately pointing out that with more than 180 pages of legislative language to implement the reorganization was a mammoth task.

"The department was given until the end of March" to implement the reforms, Spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez told UPI, and "we look forward to briefing members of the committee."

But she said officials wanted to ensure that their transition plan was complete before they briefed Congress. "We want to make sure that there are no gaps ... that we can answer all (the lawmakers') questions," she said.

She said the transition plan was "almost finished," although she would put no timeline on its completion, and that officials would be "open and willing to listen" to lawmakers' comments when they presented it.

Under the new structure imposed by Congress, The FEMA director will continue to report to Chertoff, but will have the rank of a deputy secretary and deputies at the undersecretary level, making him effectively the second or third-most senior official in the department.

The law also makes him the president's principal adviser for emergency management, and says that during an emergency, he can be temporarily promoted to Cabinet rank.

Moreover -- in language that echoes the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon -- lawmakers tried to give him a direct line to Congress, enabling him to avoid the Office of Management and Budget review process that officials' testimony has to go through before being delivered to ensure that all statements of administration policy are consistent; but which critics charge is used to tone down or remove anything critical of, or embarrassing to, the administration.

However, in a signing statement accompanying the law, President George W. Bush said he regarded this provision as an unconstitutional effort to "limit supervision of an executive branch official in the provision of advice to the Congress."

The statement said the law would be construed "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to ... supervise the unitary executive branch," meaning the agency will have to "ensure that any reports or recommendations submitted to the Congress are subjected to appropriate executive branch review and approval before submission."

The law also transferred the homeland security office that deals with grants to and training for state and local governments back to FEMA; and effectively ring-fenced the agency -- protecting its budget and organizational structure from any further changes by the department.

In the letter, Lieberman and the other signatories raise a series of concerns about the implementation of the reforms, including the fact that the department had missed a deadline for the creation of an advisory panel on preparedness; had yet to identify to appropriators any budgetary reprogramming or other changes officials need to move ahead with the reorganization; and had not established an Office of Emergency Communications to improve federal leadership on issues of interoperable communications for first responders.

Gonzalez said officials were "not going to reply point-by-point through the press" to the letter.

But she added that work on the advisory panel was proceeding, and that "the department remains highly focused on the issue of interoperable communications."

Source: United Press International

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