WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) -- One of the leading advocates in the U.S. Congress of removing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security has reversed himself, joining sponsors of a bill to reform the agency within the department.
The decision by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a long-time supporter of an independent FEMA, to join Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. -- the chairwoman and ranking members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- in supporting their bill, is a blow to emergency management advocates, who have argued for restoring FEMA to the independent cabinet-level agency status it enjoyed before being merged into the huge new Department of Homeland Security.
Lott had previously sponsored a bill that would restore FEMA's independence.
"I'm a bit disappointed that Trent Lott has changed his position," said Jane Bullock, a 25-year veteran of emergency management and former chief of staff at FEMA.
Lott's staff said his decision to back the bill was not a U-turn but an accommodation with political reality. The idea of restoring FEMA to independent status is highly controversial and legislative time is limited in this, an election year.
"His position was and still is that (FEMA) should be an independent agency," Susan Irby, spokeswoman for Lott, told United Press International Thursday. She added that, with hurricane season already here, his emphasis had been on getting a workable reform package that might pass the Senate.
"We recognize that the administration and a number of senators were very opposed (to an independent FEMA)," she said, adding that Lott saw the choice as being between "having nothing, or getting the reform process underway."
In a statement, Lott called the Collins-Lieberman bill "a good first step."
The bill would establish a new agency, the U.S. Emergency Management Authority, which would be "independent within the Department of Homeland Security," according to a statement from Collins' office, and would be protected by the same "ring-fencing" as currently enjoyed by U.S. Coast Guard and the Secret Service within the department.
The ring-fence provisions, written into the 2002 law that established the huge new department, mean that the mission, structure and budget of those two agencies cannot be tampered with by the homeland security secretary.
The administrator of the new agency would report directly to the homeland security secretary, but would also have "direct access to the president on emergency management matters, much as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does on military issues," according to the statement.
One key issue for supporters of an independent agency is the budget. Former FEMA officials have complained vociferously that, in Bullock's words "Since going into homeland security, (the agency's) resources have been dissipated -- both people and financial."
"If you bury an entity within a larger department," said former White House homeland security official Rand Beers," and that entity cannot get access to the resources needed to carry out its full mission, it has no recourse, it cannot appeal outside" the agency, without violating the chain of command.
He said to be successful in budget disputes an agency had to have a direct line, not to the president necessarily, but to the Office of Management and Budget. He said he had spent his career at the White House "trying to get money to entities (with a counter-terror mission) within agencies," because staff knew they would have problems getting the share of the budgetary cake they needed otherwise.
It was unclear at press time how the budget for the proposed new agency would be developed, but Irby said the bill included "protection for the (agency's) budget."
Although another bill re-establishing FEMA as an independent agency, sponsored by Democrats and Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, remains on the docket, supporters of independence are now fixing their sights on the House of Representatives, where the powerful chairman of the Government Reform Committee, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is backing a similar measure.
The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security has a bill similar to the Collins-Lieberman proposal. Congressional staff said House leaders hoped to give lawmakers a chance to consider both proposals during a debate after the July 4 recess.