Saturday, January 6, 2007

Lawmakers are frustrated with the lack of progress on a congressionally mandated overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, designed to ensure that flaws that dogged the response to Hurricane Katrina are fixed.

In a letter sent late last month to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and released last week, members of both the House and Senate homeland security committees complained about being kept in the dark over progress on the changes, which they feared was lagging.

“There are already some indicators that [the department] may not be effectively and promptly implementing” the new law, wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Reps. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, and Peter T. King, New York Republican.

The law effectively reconstitutes FEMA as an independent agency within the department. Mr. Chertoff opposed the overhaul, which was included in the must-pass Homeland Security appropriations bill and signed by President Bush in October.

The lawmakers’ letter requests “full and complete briefings” for staff on the implementation of the law “no later than January 8, 2007.”

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips told United Press International on Thursday that the Senate committee had heard no response from the department.

“We will give them a courteous amount of time to respond and then decide how to proceed,” she said. Miss Phillips said the letter, and the subsequent decision to release it, followed “weeks and weeks of fruitless effort to get briefings.”

“It would be fair to say” that Mr. Lieberman was frustrated, she added.

Homeland Security officials denied they were dragging their feet, pointing out that it is a mammoth task to implement the reorganization, which is outlined in 180 pages of legislative language.

“The department was given until the end of March” to implement the reforms, spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez told UPI, and “we look forward to briefing members of the committee.”

But she said officials wanted to ensure that the transition plan was complete before they briefed Congress.

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