Ridge to FEMA critics: 'Stop whining'

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Dec. 7, 2005 at 9:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says critics of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hurricane Katrina response should "quit whining."

Ridge's outspoken comments are the first time he has responded in public to criticisms of the way FEMA was incorporated into his new department in 2003.

"They ought to quit whining about what happened in the past -- that had absolutely nothing to do with what happened in Katrina," he told United Press International.

The critics, including emergency management professionals and their congressional allies, have made two charges.

First they say that FEMA was "buried in the bureaucracy" of the new department, without the clout it had enjoyed as a stand-alone agency with a cabinet-rank director. And they say that Ridge and other senior DHS officials used the agency as a "piggy bank" -- raiding its budget to pay the start up costs of the new federal behemoth.

But interviews with Ridge and more than a dozen other former and current emergency management and homeland security officials and congressional oversight staff suggest that there is little consensus about the impact on the agency of incorporation into the department.

Nonetheless, David Marin, staff director for Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis' special congressional panel probing the nation's flawed response to Katrina, told UPI that the discussion about whether FEMA should be restored to its independent status is "a debate worth having."

And a number of lawmakers, including Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., the chairman of the House Emergency Management Subcommittee, have expressed their support for pulling FEMA out of DHS.

Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., the senior-most Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, is one of the most passionate advocates of such a move. In a recent interview, he told UPI that FEMA was "gutted" when it was moved into the 180,000-strong department.

"It went from being a stand-alone agency which clearly had clout within the federal government, which had the ear of the president and which was run by professionals, to a second- or third-tier organization which was buried in the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

"It lost resources; it lost professionals ... its role diminished."

"You can't be nimble when you're layered," commented one homeland security official sardonically, referring to the contradiction he sees between the demands that FEMA act swiftly and flexibly to disasters while also being merely a single layer of the department's multi-tiered defense against terrorism.

Supporters of FEMA point out that lawmakers "ring-fenced" the Secret Service and the Coast Guard when they were put into DHS, writing into law that their roles, responsibilities and budgets could not be changed by the leadership of the new department.

But proposals to protect FEMA in a similar way were voted down. "They wanted to get rid of the name FEMA, too," said one emergency manager who followed the debate at the time. "That was the only battle we won."

The result, Sabo said, was "a whittling away of the roles and responsibilities" of the agency, as its grant-making functions were transferred to what the department called its "one-stop shop" for state and local government funding.

Critics say that operation, the Office of Domestic Preparedness, was ill suited to the task. "Their metric was money, how much money could they hand out," former New York City emergency manager Jerry Hauer told UPI.

"To be blunt," said one congressional staffer, "There were a lot of people (in emergency management) who thought that these (grant-giving functions) were being moved so that political appointees without any specialist knowledge could give money to their buddies."

Former FEMA officials add that the agency's clout with state and local officials depended on its ability to disburse funds for training and preparedness. "Take that away, and they lost their ability to cajole state and local officials into action," said one.

Congressional staff familiar with the department's vastly complex budget process add that being put into DHS cost FEMA in financial terms, too.

"They used it as a piggy bank," said one, noting that the administration had not set aside any monies to pay for the set-up costs of the new department.

Figures provided by the department to congressional appropriators show transfers from FEMA to department funds of nearly $170 million in financial years 2003-2004.

Some of these transfers were for functions that were moved to other parts of the department. For example, about $42 million was moved over the two years to the department's Office of the Inspector General, because the staff and functions of the FEMA inspector general were moved there, too.

But others were straightforward subsidies to other elements of the department that had overspent -- $5.5 million was transferred to the Transportation Security Administration, for instance, to cover the shortfall in their spending on Operation Liberty Shield, the huge orange alert that the department launched to protect the nation as it geared up for war in Iraq.

And still other transfers, totaling $42 million according to DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke, were to pay the start-up costs of the department, for which no money had been provided in the administration's budget.

"It was an extraordinary time and we kept Congress informed every step of the way," about the budget changes, said Knocke.

Ridge says that every agency and element put into the department had to chip in. "Everybody gave up some resources in order to build the platform upon which they would work," said Ridge.

"I know they made a sacrifice, everyone made a sacrifice," Ridge said of FEMA, adding that "While the bureaucrats might whine about it, the operational guys just grinned and bore it and got on with it" and that he had "enormous regard for the men and women of FEMA."

Others defended paying for the department headquarters and other stand-up costs.

"We weren't paying for the department, we were paying to improve the co-ordination between the different agencies responsible for elements of the mission," added a senior homeland security official of the budget transfers.

The official also cautioned against a too-simple interpretation of the FEMA budget, which includes the huge federal disaster fund. Although most of this money merely passes through FEMA, who disburse it to crisis-stricken localities, the official said that FEMA officials had "over the years, gotten good at charging their (regular budget expenses) to the disaster fund."

The official added that there were a series of complex reasons behind the "brain drain" of senior staff that FEMA suffered after it went into the department, pointing out that, since the agency was founded in the 1970's, a large proportion of its veterans who had been with it since the beginning began to find themselves with 25 to 30 years of service, the point at which federal employees become eligible for under the Civil Service Retirement System to leave with a significant percentage of their total pension entitlement.

"It was partly just a generational thing," the official said.

With three inquiries, Davis' in the House, the one being conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and that being overseen by Francis Townsend at the White House, the issue is likely to remain the subject of discussion for some time.

"That discussion needs to happen," said Marin. "But anyone who thinks there's evidence that FEMA would have done better on Katrina if it hadn't been in the Department of Homeland Security is deluding themselves.

"The facts to make that judgment aren't in yet."

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