- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

The federal government issued guidelines yesterday telling agencies that Hurricane Katrina victims don’t have to produce the normally required documents or identification in order to receive government money for their recovery.

“The need is so great and so immediate,” Office of Management and Budget (OMB) spokesman Alex Conant said. “And the president has been clear he doesn’t want disaster victims to go without aid because of bureaucracy.”

The OMB issued the official procedural guidance based on the best practices some agencies implemented since the hurricane hit Aug. 29. The aim is to speed delivery of direct aid to evacuees, many of whom lost everything, including identification papers.

The OMB guidance also creates mechanisms to curb improper payments, such as reviewing payments immediately after they’re made, using special codes to track such payments, increasing the number of personnel to review the process and increasing the number of post-payment audits.

Under the guidelines, a victim without any proper documentation will be able to self-certify the information he is giving the government, such as Social Security number, income and address. The victim then will receive aid as the government works to certify the information is correct.

Agencies have been told to sunset these relaxed procedures as soon as possible, with the goal of having things largely back to normal by the end of February.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the OMB guidance attempts to strike “a delicate balance” in a tough situation.

“It’s kind of hard to see what else they can do,” he said. “You have to get the benefits to people, otherwise there will be complaints. But on the other hand, if you get benefits to the wrong people, there will be complaints.”

Mr. Schatz said there will be people who abuse the setup and receive government money undeservedly. But he said the OMB is implementing decent controls.

“OMB is serious about trying to control where the money goes,” Mr. Schatz said.

Mr. Conant agreed that there will be abuse of the relaxed rules, but said the extra controls should help.

“There’s always the potential for bad actors, but this memo limits the potential for abuse,” he said.

Top Democrats used the new OMB guidelines as a way to criticize the administration for not speeding relief to victims sooner.

“Nearly a month and a half after the hurricane struck, the administration is finally taking steps to eliminate red tape and improve the quality of services [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is supposed to be providing,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

He called the OMB guidelines “inadequate” and also criticized Republicans for continuing to push for more tax cuts as well as cuts to government programs. “Those are the wrong priorities,” Mr. Reid said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn yesterday wrote to acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison, asking him to clarify how the agency is helping families find scattered members and police find convicted sex offenders among the hurricane evacuees staying in shelters. The Texas Republican said he has heard frustration from both law enforcement and families over FEMA’s handling of such requests.

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