- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

History shows us that Congress follows a time-honored pattern of reacting to the aftermath of a major tragedy with an impulsive first response followed by years of “perfecting” the original legislation.

After the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in the pristine Prince William Sound, Alaska, Congress and the executive branch reacted with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. One of my last acts as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard in 2002 was to sign the 110th clarification on how to implement that law. Though we thought the act was the right response at the time, experience later showed that we needed to make adjustments. America finds itself in such a pattern yet again in the debate over the future of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its place within the Department of Homeland Security.

Most would agree that the deficiencies of FEMA stood out in sharp relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There is much less consensus on how best to correct these deficiencies. There are currently 11 bills pending in Congress that address the future of FEMA. Some would re-establish FEMA as an independent agency, while others acknowledge the value of leaving FEMA within DHS and would simply restructure the agency. Some would give the FEMA director additional powers.

None of these proposals, however, address the central problem: The Homeland Security Act of 2002 diluted the FEMA director’s focus on the agency’s core mission — response and recovery — by requiring him to wear an additional hat as the DHS under-secretary for emergency preparedness and response (later changed to the under-secretary for federal emergency management).

This dual role within the DHS bureaucracy necessarily prevents him from concentrating 100 percent of his time on improving FEMA’s performance. In the current iteration, the FEMA director is required to devote significant attention to the administrative, budget and policy issues that are part and parcel of managing a directorate within the overall DHS bureaucracy. To once and for all set FEMA up for success, Congress must restore the FEMA director’s singular responsibility — making FEMA run well.

At the same time, it is important to keep FEMA within DHS, preserving its access to the agencies and assets it needs to perform well during an emergency. Those who advocate reverting FEMA to the independent, cabinet-level agency that it was during the Clinton Administration fail to recognize the dramatically different post-September 11 security environment we live in today. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a response to new threats facing our country. It pulled together 22 disparate agencies under one roof responsible for preventing and responding to disasters. It made the secretary of homeland security the president’s designated coordinator for disaster preparedness and response, regardless of the threat source. It does not seem wise to pull the rug out from under him by reverting FEMA to a stand-alone agency, thus removing the major response and recovery agency from his oversight.

FEMA is charged with protecting the nation from all hazards — natural or man-made. To effectively fulfill this mission, FEMA needs ready access to and association with the communication and law enforcement assets that exist within DHS. To remove FEMA from that synergy would require building bureaucratic bridges back to the other DHS response and recovery agencies in order to do its job. This would be a redundant effort, costing time and money that we simply don’t have.

Ample precedent already exists for the creation of FEMA as an independent agency within DHS. Both the Coast Guard and the Secret Service exist within DHS, but their leaders are focused solely on running their agencies and report directly to the secretary. They can be a model for FEMA.

It is reasonable to expect that we will need to make adjustments to the initial solutions we quickly devise after major disasters. In the debate over FEMA’s future, we should ensure that the FEMA director can focus all of his time, energy and talent on guiding the agency in responding effectively and efficiently to the American people in the event of a disaster. That is best accomplished by restoring FEMA’s independent agency status, offloading the director’s responsibilities of being double-hatted as an under secretary and keeping the agency and the director inside DHS with direct access to the secretary during a crisis.

Adm. James Loy is the national co-chairman of ProtectingAmerica.org. He is the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and former deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

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