FEMA's uncertain future

By E.J. Dionne Jr. Published:

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- So lets see: After the attacks of 9/11, we created a new Department of Homeland Security, known as DHS, which was supposed to make us safer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which everyone refers to as FEMA, was folded into the spanking new department.

Then FEMA failed abysmally during Hurricane Katrina.

Now Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman are arguing that FEMA, an agency that worked splendidly under President Clinton, should be dismantled and reborn within DHS as the National Preparedness and Response Authority.

Thus, FEMA would become NPRA, which no doubt would be pronounced by newscasters as Napra. Does saying Napra instead of Fema make you feel better?

Never mind that moving the once-successful FEMA into DHS may have been partly responsible for the downgrading of FEMAs mission. DHS had to worry about terrorism, so how could it take hurricanes seriously? And never mind that if POTUS, i.e., the president of the United States, had appointed good and smart managers to run FEMA, the agency would have done what it was supposed to do, as it did in the 1990s, according to no less an authority than then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Collins, a Maine Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Lieberman of Connecticut, the committees ranking Democrat, are creative public servants. Whether renamed or not, the agency will work better if the administration takes their 86 ideas for reform seriously -- especially their section emphasizing the need for capable and qualified leadership.

Yet there is something maddening about the Washington tendency to go for complicated, structural, bureaucratic fixes for what are essentially human failures. These can often be remedied simply by taking an agencys mission seriously and appointing good people to carry it out.

FEMA, Collins said last week, has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith.

But if FEMA is such a bumbling bureaucracy, why did it work so well in the 1990s? Its perfectly clear from the appointments Bill Clinton made that he took FEMAs work far more seriously than did President Bush. That explains the agencys decline better than any analysis of bureaucratic flow charts.

If there is a bureaucratic question here, should we ask whether creating a Department of Homeland Security and tossing FEMA inside it has actually made us safer? At the risk of sounding like a crotchety conservative, Ive always wondered about the conventional wisdom that adding a Secretary of X or a Secretary of Y automatically gets problem X or problem Y taken more seriously.

Doesnt the logic of the story suggest moving back to a time when FEMA actually worked? Why not just liberate FEMA from DHS, as Sens. Trent Lott, Barbara Boxer, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Tom Davis have suggested, and make sure that competent people run the place? An independent agency run responsibly beats innovative acronyms almost every time.

There was no greater foe of the conventional wisdom, a term he coined, than John Kenneth Galbraith, who died on Saturday at the age of 97. May the deserved eulogies Galbraith is receiving inspire a new generation of economists to challenge their professions political correctness as Galbraith did all his working life.

For Galbraith, economics was always about more than iron laws and indecipherable equations. He taught that one could not understand an economy without also understanding the impact of politics and power on the way it worked. He asked economists to acknowledge how contingent their ideas are, and he took pleasure that his sparkling writing might annoy someone of comfortably pretentious position.

In his 1987 book Economics in Perspective: A Critical History, Galbraith wrote that economic ideas are always and intimately a product of their own time and place; they cannot be seen apart from the world they interpret. Change in economics has been slow, he added, because those who benefit from the status quo resist change, as do economists who have a vested interest in what has always been taught and believed.

Galbraith was known for being rather sure of himself, but I discovered how warm and hospitable he could be over the 35 years or so since I first became friends with two of his sons, Peter and Jamie. Galbraith and his elegant wife Catherine treated the motley crew of teenagers and twentysomethings that Peter and Jamie brought traipsing through their home with respect, affection and -- a family trait -- great wit. Galbraith will be missed as a towering social critic, but also as a very good man.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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