Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

FEMA: The Model of a Federal Agency

I recently read a blogger’s post quoting Ronald Reagan’s quip that the ten scariest words in the English language were “I'm from the Federal Government, and I'm here to help.” The blogger’s response: “I'd venture that "there's no clean water, shelter, food, medical facilities, or security" is more frightening.”

The worst government programs are inefficient, or pork projects, or suffer from leaders placed through cronyism. The best achieve immediate or lasting good and are staffed by intelligent and dedicated folks (have you had a conversation with a park ranger recently? They’re not doing it to get rich!). Rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System and the New Deal (sorry conservatives) spring to mind as phenomenally successful — good government in action. Similarly, the Marshall Plan is viewed by most everyone as a brilliant move whose positive effects are still being felt.

Until Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t know much about the history of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There’s a great article here. Apparently, it was pretty inefficient until Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, who unlike any of his predecessors actually possessed emergency management experience. On Witt’s watch, FEMA become a model government agency, earning bipartisan praise. Bush’s appointment to head FEMA was a campaign donor, Joe Allbaugh, who in turn hired a college buddy, Mike Brown, as his deputy. Brown was made the head of the agency roughly two years ago (prior to his FEMA stint Brown had been forced to resign from his job running horse shows.) While folding FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was a horrible idea, the bigger problem was slashing its budget and chasing away some very experienced, dedicated folks. The Washington Post published an impassioned op-ed pleading to rescue FEMA, penned by Eric Holdeman (director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management). The paper also documents the under-funding flood control has recently suffered in New Orleans.

American conservatism used to stand for fiscal conservatism, and it would be splendid if this strain reclaimed the Republican party from lunatics like Karl Rove’s close friend Grover Norquist who has proclaimed his “goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years,“ shrinking it “to the size that we can drown it in a bathtub.” We need something better than blanket hostility without explanation towards government programs simply because they are government programs (never mind the irony that a “small government” administration created the Department of Homeland Security in the largest government expansion in years). The New York Times’ Paul Krugman hits on this point in a scathing editorial. At some point it would be lovely to discuss government programs in terms of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, goals and — radical thought here — competence.

The news coming from New Orleans is absolutely appalling. While aid workers have been heroic, the management from Mike Brown and others on the upper tier has been criminal and unconscionable. “Situation Normal — All Fucked Up” is simply not acceptable when human lives are on the line. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, in an open letter to President Bush, has called for the firing of Mike Brown and his top staff. But even as Brown failed to rescue the people of New Orleans, let’s rescue FEMA from him and cronyism. We can’t afford another Katrina.

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