CARAFANO: Time to herd the cats

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Anniversaries are a time for looking back. Last week marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans. So, how’s our disaster preparedness five years on?

Not so good, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Nearly “6 in 10 [respondents], or 57 percent, say the country is not better prepared for another disaster like a hurricane,” Associated Press reported, adding, “Roughly equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents share that gloomy outlook.”

Once again, the American public is right. Five years after Katrina and almost a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, Washington is still far from being the master of disaster.

Consider the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The folks in Louisiana are still scratching their heads at the lethargic response from the White House. The tar balls took a month to make shore, yet when they landed, the feds still weren’t ready for them. State officials, eager to take action, chafed for weeks while federal agencies plodded through a labyrinthine permitting procedure before deciding whether the locals would be allowed to save themselves. Meanwhile, the most robust and decisive part of the president’s response was to impose a drilling moratorium - a ban that has further devastated the Gulf economy.

Washington’s continued penchant for mismanaging mayhem stems in part from the difficulty of integrating the work of an alphabet soup’s worth of federal agencies. FEMA, EPA, DOD, DHS and more must coordinate their response efforts. The integrated approach is often labeled the “interagency” or “whole of government” approach. In practice, it usually is referred to as an exercise in herding cats.

The major problem here is planning - or rather, the lack thereof. The post-Sept. 11 record of national catastrophic disaster planning is a study in ineptness.

After Sept. 11, the Department of Homeland Security identified 15 model disasters for planning ahead - everything from hurricanes to nuclear attacks. With the exception of hurricanes and pandemics, little has been accomplished.

The department also set up an interagency planning process, but that process fell moribund. When President Obama took office, he vowed to revive it. His first step: to rewrite the presidential directive that oversees this process. A year and a half later, even the rewrite has yet to be finished.

Mr. Obama also inherited a nascent national security professional-development program from the George W. Bush White House. This initiative was intended to build an interagency corps of highly trained national security professionals. It has pretty much died on the vine as well.

And, even if the president got his act together and got the ball rolling toward responsible planning for dealing with catastrophic disasters, there is nothing to keep the next president from just throwing out the Obama process and starting over.

Congress has been no help, either. Just look at homeland security. The 9/11 Commission said consolidating congressional oversight of homeland security had to be a top priority. At the time, several dozen committees, subcommittees and other oversight bodies claimed jurisdiction, tying up those charged with making us safer in rounds of endless, duplicative “oversight” hearings. Today, the Department of Homeland Security need not worry about answering to dozens of overseeing authorities. The number is now up more than 100!

How can we break out of this morass and start making real progress toward preparing effectively for the worst? The Constitution suggests an answer. The framers were most interested in articulating the roles, responsibilities and checks and balances between the branches of government. They left it to responsible men and women within each branch to largely determine how to run their part of the government. Thus, the answer is: We need each part of government to do its job, and we need responsible people.

Real reform has to start with Congress. It must set a legislative framework that ensures the executive can stock federal agencies with responsible people who are skilled in interagency operations.

Each chamber should establish a new committee with very narrow jurisdiction: to address only those matters that are essential to build a federal work force skilled at whole-of-government operations. The committees should have oversight for the policies establishing the education, assignment and accreditation of interagency leaders in the federal enterprise. Such committees could provide the heretofore lacking leadership needed.

Yes, inter-ops committees sound like a “silver bullet” solution. Sometimes silver bullets work. It’s how Congress finally managed to force “jointness” upon the military, through the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Why not use the same model to achieve “jointness” in disaster preparedness? All it takes is congressional leaders responsible enough to make it happen.

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