Sunday, April 02, 2006

Wanted: Impotent Scapegoat

The New York Times has a great piece on President Bush's inability to find someone willing to take Michael Brown's old job as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They've done a nice bit of digging to root out several people who've turned down the FEMA job.

But I think they could have done a lot more in explaining why. The Times suggests that the top candidates are "unconvinced" that the administration is serious about "fixing" FEMA. But the reality is, whether the job candidates were being diplomatic or not, the administration has, if anything, been serious about breaking FEMA. I'm talking about Bush's vision for FEMA from before 9/11 and Katrina -- when there was no political motive for concealing his true ideas of what FEMA should and should not be. Here are the specifics on why the job is so undesireable:

President Bush came into office openly praising the job FEMA had done under President Clinton.

But as soon as President Bush took office, he began dismantling FEMA. Project Impact and the ANSS were among the first to feel the pain.

Then, Bush's budget guy, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, made clear what the administration's view of FEMA was. In April, 2001, he reportedly said: "The general idea--that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided--seems self-evident to me."

The next month, Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh -- like his successor, Michael Brown, a political appointee -- made similar remarks before the Senate. I've emphasized language Allbaugh used to signal that, under Bush, FEMA was to assist and encourage LOCAL disaster responses, rather than take the lead in preparing and responding itself, around the nation. Specifically, he said:

During my tenure in this position of public trust, we will...

* Implement pre-disaster mitigation programs that encourage the building of disaster resistant communities;

* Guide the Federal Insurance Administration to implement policies encouraging the purchase of flood insurance and reducing the costs of flood related disasters...

* Pay special attention and strengthen those volunteer and non-governmental organizations responding to disasters...

In recent decades, we have seen Federal emergency management swing from overly prescriptive preparedness programs and a single focus on response and recovery, to a more comprehensive approach that incorporates mitigation, by taking prudent protective measures to reduce losses. At the same time, we have seen soaring disaster relief costs that need to be managed more effectively.

The Administration's budget request for FEMA this year will build on this progress by emphasizing Responsibility and Accountability. This budget request asks individuals, communities, States, and FEMA to take on an appropriate degree of responsibility while empowering them with the tools to accept greater responsibility. Built into this budget request are sound public policy tools to ensure greater accountability to each other and the American taxpayer...
Two things to note here. One is the mindset that the federal government is apart from the people. Most people, I think, consider the federal government a device that the people themselves have created and support in order to do things exactly like respond to disasters. In reality, however, President Bush sees people as individually responsible even for such matters as disaster preparedness and response. And his vision of government denies them the ability to act together, collectively, in ways that not only pool individual resources (i.e. tax dollars), but also allow them to deal from a position of strength. In other words, if individuals are responsible for disaster preparedness, they're stripped of the power collective bargaining would give them in dealing with contractors, suppliers, insurance companies, etc.

More from Allbaugh:
Disaster mitigation and prevention activities are inherently grassroots. These activities involve local decision-making about zoning, building codes, and strategy planning to meet a community's unique needs. It is not the role of the Federal Government to tell a community what it needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure.
It's a nice formulation, but it denies the reality that local communities -- such as New Orleans pre-Katrina -- have been trying to tell the federal government what IT needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure. No one has advocated for an imperial federal disaster agency, which is why such an agency is a straw man argument. Advocating for an active, federal lead in disaster response does not automatically mean advocating an authoritarian policy-making federal agency.
The original intent of Federal disaster assistance is to supplement State and local response efforts. Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management.
Translation: The Bush administration views your claim that the government protect you from floods and fires and terrorist attacks as an "entitlement," and views local government as failing to view floods and fires and terrorist attacks as sufficient disincentive on their own.
Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, State and local efforts.

Having Federal assistance supplement, not supplant State and local efforts is, most likely, going to be one of the more difficult measures aimed at responsibility and accountability that this Administration will have to work through.
At last, something we can all agree on. But what's really telling about this remark, is that it reveals our current problems with FEMA as not the fault of Michael Brown, or even government "bureaucracy," but as the fault of the fundamental vision Bush has for what FEMA should be. What's truly frustrating, of course, is that by implementing his vision of an impotent, useless FEMA -- and then blaming its failings not on his emasculation of it, but on individual personnel and the mythical "bureaucracy" beast -- he can make the case that it, and government, are not up to the task, rather than the fact that he, and his administration, don't want or believe in the task.

More Allbaugh:
We will pay special attention to volunteers and non-governmental organizations responding to disasters. Disasters hit hardest in communities and neighborhoods, and our solutions to disaster problems rely on local solutions. Faith-based groups at the community level, like the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster Service, play critical roles in disaster relief, as does the American Red Cross...

As the President's Director for emergency management, I am also aware of the expectations of our citizens that their government protect their lives and property when an emergency or disaster occurs, whether it is a hurricane, earthquake, flood, tornado, or as the result of an act of terrorism.

As we implement criteria empowering State and local governments to assume greater responsibility for people and property, we need to equip them to do this.
One reason the Bush administration wants smaller, decentralized disaster response is that it's easier for the powers that be, whether it's big money, big business or big religion, can more easily influence faith-based organizations, state and local governments, than they can the federal government. Why? Primarily because it's much more difficult to rally significant opposition to that influence. What public accountability is there for faith-based organizations? How much do you know -- and how much do your local media cover -- the ins and outs of your state or even local government?
As President Bush said in his February address to the Joint Session of Congress, "Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged, but not overbearing." We think you will see that the budget proposal for FEMA truly reflects the President's goal of restoring a proper balance - moving away from the expectation that the Federal Government is the option of first resort to the option of last resort.
Exactly. Katrina didn't reveal FEMA's shortcomings, it accelerated Bush's goal for FEMA: Does anyone today still have expectations that the federal government is the option of first resort? Mission accomplished.

Even after Katrina, the media continued to miss the telling ways Bush's language revealed his vision for FEMA. I dissected one particularly telling speech here. The reality is, that American cities and towns don't have the money to each develop and maintain standing disaster-response teams on the same level the federal government can muster. It would be silly, redundant and wasteful even if every city and town were capable of it. That leaves only the corporate option -- turning to private contractors for emergency disaster response. That's real end-game here, taking the federal government out of the equation, so that people are forced to turn to Halliburton and friends.

What the New York Times misses, I think, is that no respectable disaster specialist wants this job, because the job doesn't entail disaster response or preparedness any more. Thanks to a concept of the role of federal government that has been consistent from day one and has withstood the onslaughts of 9/11 and Katrina, FEMA and the federal government are, just as Bush wanted, no longer in the disaster business.

Ironically, Bush has so effectively disabled America's ability to respond to a disaster that now FEMA really, finally, actually is an appropriate position for Joe Allbaugh or Michael Brown.


CitizenSteve said...

Great observations.
Isn't it ironic that as Bush & co. put the Federal gov't out of the 'doing things' business, the Republican majority in Congress are claiming Federal jurisdiction over everything and putting state and local gov'ts out of business.

'course what they can't pull off in Congress they may do with GATS.

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