By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
President Bush reserved the right to ignore key changes in Congress's overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- including a requirement to appoint someone with experience handling disasters as the agency's head -- in setting aside dozens of provisions contained in a major homeland security spending bill this week.
Besides objecting to Congress's list of qualifications for FEMA's director, the White House also claimed the right to edit or withhold reports to Congress by a watchdog agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for protecting Americans' personal privacy.
The standards for the FEMA director were inspired by criticism of former FEMA chief Michael D. Brown's performance after Hurricane Katrina last year. Brown, a lawyer and judge of Arabian horses, had no experience in disaster response before joining FEMA.
Bush's moves came in a controversial assertion of executive authority known as a "signing statement," which the White House issued late Wednesday, the same day the president signed the $34.8 billion measure. Congress has assailed the unprecedented extent of Bush's use of signing statements to reinterpret or repudiate measures approved by lawmakers instead of exercising a formal veto.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the actions, first reported by the Associated Press, upheld the president's right to choose his advisers and control executive branch activities.
"There's nothing new here. The president has the authority to choose which of his subordinate officers he'll rely on," Fratto said. "The president has the authority to determine what the relationship is between them."
Lawmakers in both parties -- Democrats more harshly than Republicans -- said Bush was ignoring precedent and neglecting lessons of the bungled response to Katrina.
"Amazingly, President Bush continues to show more interest in expanding his executive power than in running the government in a fair, effective and competent manner," said Rep. Martin O. Sabo (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
A spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who chaired a House Katrina investigation, said the White House is slighting Congress and ignoring the political toll of Brown's incompetence and ties to GOP cronies.
"Davis hopes the White House isn't saying they don't understand the need for minimal qualifications, or that they might bypass them. If indeed they are, then we haven't come very far from the days of 'Heck of a job, Brownie,' " Davis spokesman David Marin said, in a reference to Bush's early praise for Brown. "Good luck getting someone confirmed who doesn't meet these standards."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate's Katrina investigation, said its findings showed that the president needs a principal adviser for emergency management, as he has on military matters in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Congress sets job requirements for officials from the U.S. solicitor general to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she said. They are comparable to the five years of management experience and demonstrated emergency-management skills it mandated for the head of FEMA, she said. The director also should be allowed to make recommendations directly to Congress, she said, authority that the White House rejected.
"Congress needs a forthright assessment of the state of the nation's preparedness from the FEMA director," Collins said.
The White House also reserved the right to withhold or alter reports of a unit that monitors DHS use of Americans' personal information in background checks, employment screening and air travel, among other things.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, warned against muzzling the office, as DHS emerges as "the central hub for the integration" of government databases containing that information.
The DHS Privacy Office's last report to Congress covered activities up to June 2004. DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie said a new report, updated through this June, will be sent to the White House for review in coming days and is expected to be made public in about a week.