The Magazine

When Pointing Fingers . . .

Don't forget Congress.

Sep 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 01 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WEEK BY WEEK IN KATRINA'S wake, Americans and their leaders are in for two deeply painful civics lessons having nothing whatsoever to do with racially conditioned responses or partisan politics. Lesson one is that the only thing worse than having big government in the first place is relying on it to achieve big goals that it cannot, in fact, achieve without additional funding and far-reaching administrative reforms; the only thing worse than spending over two trillion tax dollars annually is having to watch as your big government at each and every level (federal, state, and local) moves too slow and comes up too small in performing such fundamental tasks as maintaining public order, guarding public health, and protecting private property.

Lesson two is that what passes for big government in this country belongs to Congress. Federal agencies report to the president but are Congress's fiscal and administrative creatures. For almost a half-century now, the nation's legislative branch has made federal bureaucracies into a bloody mess. At times such as these, there is, alas, precious little that even a determined president, his White House staff, or his political appointees in the agencies can do to clean up the mess, change how things work, or improve government performance.

Few topics are as boring as administrative history, but none matters more to what government does or fails to do. The moment's critical case in point is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In Senate testimony given last March, FEMA director Michael D. Brown stated that the nation "is prepared as never before, to deal quickly and capably with the consequences of disasters and other domestic incidents. However, despite continuing improvements to the domestic incident architecture, planning for a comprehensive and effective response to--and recovery from--a catastrophic incident is still a challenge to the emergency management community."

That was putting it delicately. Founded in 1979, FEMA merged several separate disaster-response agencies. It has been blessed with capable civil servants and is rightly credited with responding well to myriad emergencies and disasters (floods, earthquakes, 9/11, and more). But Congress has kept FEMA on a short and raggedy appropriations and oversight leash. FEMA is not now, and never has been, an agency that has the authority, the budget, and the staff to approximate its ambitious mission statement. When it comes to emergency planning, disaster preparedness, hazard mitigation, and other key responsibilities, the often-heroic FEMA is but the national government's anemic administrative finger in the dike.

FEMA's battle-tested genius is in forging ad hoc cooperation and coordination with whatever other federal, state, or local public agencies or other organizations may be involved in a particular situation. By congressional charter, however, the agency has little real power to get other (often larger) government agencies to act (spend money, deploy personnel, provide information) when and as it deems necessary. From a public administration perspective, expecting FEMA to spearhead and sustain a truly effective "emergency management" response to Katrina would be almost as silly as expecting it to coordinate or command State Department and Pentagon efforts to secure, rebuild, and democratize Iraq.

During its first decade, FEMA could do little to tame the hyper-fragmentation that had long plagued major disaster-relief operations (and that was the original justification for its own founding). In the mid-90s, Midwest floods and other disasters sent FEMA reeling. The agency got some needed congressional attention, plus a little extra money, via the Clinton-Gore "reinventing government" initiative. In fiscal year 1998, FEMA asked Congress for $3.2 billion, and got most of what it wanted. In 2000, however, the agency hatched a five-year strategic plan that few experts believed (correctly, as it turned out) it could fulfill. In 2001, under Bush-Cheney, FEMA asked Congress for only $2.1 billion.

Then came 9/11. In 2002, FEMA, closer than ever to political front-burners, asked Congress for $6.4 billion, including $3.5 billion for local police, firefighters, and other "first responders." Congress largely obliged. In May 2002, then-FEMA director Joe M. Allbaugh told Senate appropriators that in "addition to distributing this grant money," FEMA would commence "developing nationwide standards for states and local governments pertaining to first responder training, equipment interoperability, emergency planning, mutual aid, and evaluation." On paper, some progress has been made in developing these "nationwide standards." But, as we have all witnessed, America is hardly the national emergency preparedness paragon promised by every White House and Congress since 1979.