The House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina did a heck of a job on Brownie yesterday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) ordered a Democratic boycott of the hearing, calling it a "sham" and a "photo opportunity." But, as defrocked FEMA director Michael D. Brown can attest, Pelosi's concerns about a whitewash proved unjustified.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, called Brown's account of events "feeble," "clueless," "shocking" and "beyond belief." Said Shays: "I'm happy you left, because that kind of . . . look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren't capable to do the job."
Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, told Brown: "I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle."
Rep. Gene Taylor, one of two Democrats who ignored the boycott, said Brown was in way over his head. "You folks fell on your face. You get an F-minus in my book," he attested. The Mississippian added: "Maybe the president made a very good move when he asked you to leave your job."
Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) offered Brown no help, giving members unlimited time to abuse the witness and adding his own barbs. When Brown argued that the White House "was fully engaged . . . behind the scenes," Davis interjected: "They had to be behind the scenes, because I think we didn't see anything out front."
Brown displayed the command of facts that made him famous over the past month. He did not know how much FEMA had spent on communications, guessing, "a boatload of money." He had to ask members of his entourage how many MREs were in a trailer load. "I don't have a clue how many [people] were truly in the Superdome," he volunteered at one point. Asked whether he is still a federal employee, Brown said: "You know, I don't know." (He is.)
With 12 Republicans and no Democrats on the dais when the hearing opened, Brown started by blaming the media and Louisiana's Democratic officials. "I do believe there are a couple of specific mistakes that I made," he said. "I failed initially to set up a series of regular briefings to the media," he lamented. And his "biggest mistake," he said, "was not recognizing . . . that Louisiana was dysfunctional."
"I do not want to make this partisan," he said, proceeding to do just that, "so I can't help it that Alabama and Mississippi are governed by Republican governors and Louisiana is governed by a Democratic governor."
Pointing his finger, pounding the table, Brown veered from his prepared testimony to insist: "I get it" and "I know what it's all about," and "I know what I am doing" and "I do a pretty darn good job." This display produced gasps and chuckles in the gallery.
Brown did nothing to win over his questioners. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) had to repeat a question because Brown was reading his BlackBerry. Shays had to repeat one because Brown was engrossed in his notes. When Shays pressed him about his performance, a petulant Brown complained: "So I guess you want me to be this superhero."
One hour and 36 minutes passed before Brown acknowledged that "FEMA has a logistics problem." Gradually, Brown's admissions grew more damaging.
Money for "catastrophic planning" for a New Orleans hurricane "was removed by the Department of Homeland Security," he said. Brown said he should have asked for President Bush's help earlier, and should have urged the military to come in sooner. He said it was a mistake that FEMA had no contingency contract for recovering dead bodies.
Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) elicited the biggest confession. "One of my frustrations over the past three years has been the emaciation of FEMA," Brown told him. Speaking of dwindling funds and a "brain drain," Brown said he struggled just "to keep that place together" and asserted that he "predicted privately for several years that we were going to reach this point."
As the questioning progressed, Brown turned his fury on the administration. "I probably should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public with some of these things," he told Granger.
Yesterday, he might have been better off to keep some things private -- as when Jefferson complained about the lack of ice in New Orleans and Brown replied: "I think it's wrong for the federal government to be in the ice business, providing ice so I can keep my beer and Diet Coke cool."
Taylor, incredulous, asked, "How about the need to keep bodies from rotting in the sun?"
Jefferson added: "One of the major reasons that old people just suffered and died is because there was no ice."
Brown, losing control, demanded four times that Taylor not "lecture" him.
But the lecturing continued -- in a way even Pelosi would have approved. "I have come to the conclusion that this administration values loyalty more than anything else," Shays said, "more than competence or, frankly, more than the truth. And you have reinforced that view. . . . I'm left with the feeling [that] the administration feels they have to protect you."
"Well," Brown answered, "you should come over here and sit in this chair and see how protected you feel."