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FEMA Signing Statement Blasted

by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Oct 12, 2006
A bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators has written to President George W. Bush, expressing "dismay" that he intends to disregard provisions in the recent law overhauling the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which set minimum qualifications for its director.

The chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's senior-most Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana all signed the letter, sent Thursday.

They thank Bush for signing last week the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, part of which enacted a whole-scale restructuring of FEMA -- and the Department of Homeland Security, into which it was rolled in March 2003 -- in response to the agency's widely panned performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year.

"We were dismayed, however," the senators continue, "by the 'signing statement,' in which you express your intention to disregard provisions in the law intended to protect against further mistakes such as those that plagued the 2005 hurricane response."

The new law makes an effort to end the cronyism that critics charged had enabled emergency management novice Michael Brown to become FEMA chief in 2003 after just two years as the agency's general counsel. It requires that the president nominate a candidate who has "a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security; and not less than five years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector."

It also gives the FEMA administrator, once confirmed, a direct line to Congress, saying he or she "may make such recommendations to Congress relating to emergency management as the administrator considers appropriate."

As the bill's language was being finalized, an administration official told United Press International that meant the administrator's testimony to Congress would not go through the usual review by the White House Office of Management and Budget -- a process designed to ensure that all statements of administration policy are consistent, but which critics charge is used by officials to tone down or remove anything critical of or embarrassing to the administration.

Bush signed the law at a high-profile media event in Scottsdale, Ariz., Oct. 4, saying it would help the United States "better respond to emergencies and natural disasters by strengthening the capabilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency."

But the signing statement, released quietly several hours later, maintains that nearly 40 provisions of the law, including those regarding the FEMA administrator, are unconstitutional restrictions on the prerogatives of the executive branch.

The provision on the administrator's direct line to Congress, the signing statement says, "purports to ... limit supervision of an executive branch official in the provision of advice to the Congress."

The statement says the law will 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."

In Thursday's letter, however, the senators point out that "this provision follows precedent set in other agencies -- in particular the Department of Defense," where the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has a similar direct line. "Congress needs a forthright assessment of the state of the nation's preparedness from the FEMA administrator," they conclude.

The minimum qualifications provision, the signing statement says, "purports to limit the qualifications of the pool of persons from whom the president may select the appointee in a manner that rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office."

But the letter says that legislation has set minimum qualifications "for numerous executive positions," including the solicitor general and the director of the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neither the White House nor the Office of Management and Budget responded to requests for an interview, but in an e-mailed statement Thursday spokesman Scott Milburn told UPI that the policy co-ordination and review process was designed to ensure that "bills and position statements submitted to Congress by one agency properly take into account the interests and concerns of all affected agencies, and divergent agency views are reconciled."

He said the signing statement "clarifies and preserves" the administration's rights "to effectively manage the work of executive branch agencies."

Nevertheless, the letter appears to signal a growing restiveness on Capitol Hill about the Bush White House's broad use of such signing statements to protect what senior officials see as important executive branch prerogatives.

Critics say the expanded use of the statements is another instance of the administration's determination to expand the unilateral powers of the executive, and the president and vice-president personally.

"We continue to have concerns about your broad use of the signing statements to raise questions about the executive's intention to comply with legislation passed by both house of Congress and signed into law by the president," says the senators' letter.

Source: United Press International

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