Congress, Heal Thyself

Monday, September 12, 2005

MEMBERS OF CONGRESS have been quick to point fingers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Some of the blame ought to be directed at themselves.

Where, for instance, was the oversight before Katrina? In particular, given the critical role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the minimal qualifications of Michael D. Brown to be its director, you might think the Senate would have wanted to conduct a thorough hearing before confirming him to the post. No such luck. Mr. Brown had a cursory hearing in 2002 -- it lasted all of 42 minutes and was attended by four senators -- when he was named deputy director of FEMA; no one at that hearing questioned his lack of background in emergency response.

And when Mr. Brown was promoted to the top job, he had no confirmation hearing at all -- thanks to a ridiculously loose provision in the law creating the Department of Homeland Security that waived the reconfirmation requirement for "any officer whose agency is transferred to the Department . . . whose duties following such transfer are germane to those performed before such transfer." If Mr. Brown wasn't qualified to head FEMA, Congress shares some of the responsibility for putting him there.

Members of the Louisiana congressional delegation might ask themselves -- or, even better, their constituents might ask -- whether they steered federal spending in the state to benefit their constituents or their financial underwriters. As The Post's Michael Grunwald reported, Louisiana has received more money for Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects than any other state during the Bush administration -- about $1.9 billion. But much of that money has gone to navigation projects of benefit to oil companies and shipping interests, not for shoring up protection against flooding. Given scarce resources, was dredging the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway really the best use of federal dollars?

Likewise, the Katrina disaster ought to lead lawmakers to rethink the irrational, porky formula that Congress has insisted on for spending disaster prevention funds. Instead of allocating money based solely on risk, Congress doles out cash even to states and cities facing minimal danger. That way, every area gets its slice of the homeland security funding pie -- and every lawmaker gets to claim credit.

The administration has tried to change these rules, but it's run into stiff resistance from some of those very lawmakers who now bewail the lack of preparedness exposed by Hurricane Katrina, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has agreed to change the current formula but has held out for an arrangement still tilted too generously to small states such as her own.

Such parochialism may have contributed to the New Orleans debacle. It's the 35th most populated city in the country. It has one of the busiest ports in the country, along with oil, natural gas and chemical facilities -- vulnerable to terrorist attack as well as natural disaster. Yet it ranks 45th among the 50 high-risk cities that received grants from the Department of Homeland Security last year. It received less homeland security money than smaller, less endangered Baton Rouge.

Vulnerability to natural disaster isn't the same as risk of a terrorist attack, but a more sensible funding formula would probably have directed money to New Orleans because of

the importance of its energy infrastructure. Wouldn't spending on satellite phones for police and firefighters in New Orleans have been a better use of federal funds than giving $52,688 in homeland security money to Plankinton, S.D., population 567, for new fire equipment or $200,000 to Grand Forks, N.D., for a bomb-dismantling robot?

In Katrina's wake, the pending legislation that would overhaul the funding formula needs to be shifted even more in the direction of risk; on this score, the House version of the legislation is better than the Senate's but still not good enough. And it ought to make clear, as the Senate version does, that exposure to natural disaster should be considered in the equation of risk.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company