Poll Shows Support For FEMA
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) April 26, 2007
A large majority of Americans believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was damaged by being absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security and ought to be restored to the status of an independent agency.
The news comes as lawmakers assess the congressionally mandated shake-up of the department last year, which effectively reconstituted FEMA within Homeland Security and ring-fenced it against any breakup or diminution in future re-organizations -- a move that some saw as paving the way for the agency to be pulled out of the department altogether in the future.
The UPI/Zogby poll of nearly 6,000 Americans, weighted to make it representative of the country as a whole, found that 71 percent believed FEMA should be restored to the status of an independent agency.
Respondents also believed, by a ratio of more than 4-to-1, that putting FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security had damaged the government's ability to respond to disasters.
Officials at FEMA, which was slated for its role in the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina, defended the agency's record, saying they were confident it was winning back public support.
"We feel at the agency that we are stronger within the Department of Homeland Security," FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker told United Press International.
"There is a process of regaining public confidence," he said, adding that FEMA's handling of the Florida tornados and the snowstorm in the northeast this year had already shown Americans "a more forward-leaning, more responsive, and more nimble" agency.
But the public does not seem to be buying just yet -- and their feelings about FEMA absorption into Homeland Security appear to reflect a broader distrust of the department.
The 5,932 representative adults interviewed online by Zogby April 13-16 were asked which of two statements "best reflects your opinion" of the decision to put FEMA inside Homeland Security.
Only 16 percent agreed that the move had "helped the government to better coordinate the response to natural disasters and emergency situations."
By contrast, 66 percent agreed that "Placing FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security has hurt the government's ability to respond to natural disasters and emergencies by shifting the focus from disaster and emergency preparedness and placing more emphasis on counter-terrorism."
Asked whether the creation of the Department of Homeland Security "has helped make domestic security operations more efficient by pooling talent and knowledge" or whether it had "added another level of government bureaucracy and made domestic security operations less efficient," only 34 percent chose the first option and 49 percent the second.
Doubts about the effectiveness of the department and of putting FEMA inside it were especially pronounced among Democrats, 86 percent of whom believed the agency had been damaged by its absorption. Large majorities of moderates (75 percent) and independents (70 percent) also agreed, but only 43 percent of Republicans.
A majority of Republicans (61 percent) and of those who called themselves conservatives (62 percent) believed that the formation of Homeland Security had aided domestic security, but in every other party and ideological grouping this was a minority view.
The question of FEMA's status in Homeland Security has been a vexed one since the law setting the department up was debated in 2002. At that time, some lawmakers attempted to ring-fence the agency, pushing language in the legislation that would have protected it from being broken up during departmental reshuffling.
Such protective language was eventually included for both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Secret Service, but not for FEMA, and -- as its defenders had predicted -- various parts of the agency, including its grant-giving functions, were broken off and migrated to other elements of the department.
Some critics blamed the agency's failures in the Katrina response on the decision they characterized as burying it in the bowels of the department. Others pointed to the White House's initial torpor and the agency's leadership, arguing that the move into Homeland Security had not, in and of itself, handicapped it.
A hearing Thursday of a House subcommittee will consider the reorganization that Congress imposed on the agency last year and weigh whether further reforms are needed.
Many House lawmakers, including powerful chairmen and ranking members, supported the idea of pulling the agency out of Homeland Security altogether and have not given up on it yet.
"You can make that 71 percent plus one," said Jim Berard, communications director for the Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, when told of the support for restoring FEMA's independence, "because Chairman (James) Oberstar (Democrat of Minnesota) believes that too."
Source: United Press International
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