Four hurricanes had hit Florida in 2004, and the evidence was overwhelming that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had totally botched its response. Some of the hardest-hit counties, complained Florida lawmakers, were overlooked, while other counties out of harm's way had received lavish relief -- to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, much of it for damage that could not be documented.
Republican Reps. Katherine Harris and Mark Foley, along with other members of the Florida delegation, asked the two House committees with FEMA jurisdiction to hold hearings on what went wrong. "This, of course, is not just a Florida issue," the lawmakers wrote the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on March 3. "FEMA disaster assistance affects virtually every state."
The Florida debacle revealed serious deficiencies in FEMA operations and management, but when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit six months later, the committees still had not acted on the delegation's request.
It was a typical response for a Congress that has had little appetite in recent years for executive branch oversight. And now, as lawmakers probe FEMA's mistakes in responding to Katrina, they are waking up to the consequences of neglect.
Government scholars and watchdog groups say the decline of congressional oversight in recent years has thrown out of kilter the system of checks and balances the Founding Fathers created to keep no one branch of government from becoming too powerful. Whether the Pentagon or the Environmental Protection Agency, if a department does not think Congress is paying attention, it could be more apt to waste money or allow problems to go unaddressed.
"There's a tendency to blame this on the bureaucracy, but this is the leadership of the Congress and the administration," said Joel D. Aberbach, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in government accountability.
"If there was ever an agency in need of oversight, FEMA is it," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a recent interview. "It's a very big management job, and because of the nature of the work they do, they have only one chance to get it right."
The agency has never faced as costly a challenge as Katrina and Rita, and Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for an inspector general, an auditor or some other overseer of the billions in taxpayer money that FEMA is paying out weekly. "This is when cooler heads need to prevail," said Foley, who continues to remind his colleagues that better FEMA oversight "is long overdue."
One problem in recent years, Aberbach says, is that political control in both chambers has been centralized within the leadership, depleting the authorities of committees. "You have to have realistic expectations of Congress -- it's a political body," he said. "But if you draw power away from the committees, you lose the expertise that they have, and that's certainly been a problem recently."
To illustrate the decline, Aberbach counted oversight hearings in the House and Senate, excluding those by the appropriations committees, for the first six months of 1983 and 1997. He found steep reductions in both chambers: from 782 hearings in the House in 1983 to 287 hearings in 1997, and from 439 hearings in 1983 in the Senate to 175 hearings in 1997.
Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, has a harsher assessment. "This Congress doesn't see itself as an independent branch that might include criticizing an incumbent administration. Meaningful oversight, because it might imply criticism, has been pushed off the table altogether."
New York University professor Paul C. Light, who has studied the federal bureaucracy, said the Government Accountability Office, Congress's independent oversight arm, has conducted extensive reviews of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, producing scores of detailed recommendations. But that is work done for naught if Congress does not follow up. "In a sense it's too much and too little," Light said.
Florida was not the only place where recent FEMA actions have raised questions. Lawmakers last year expressed concerns about disaster-relief overpayments in Ohio, Michigan and Alabama. After the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that FEMA paid $29.5 million to Mobile County, Ala., residents, even though local disaster officials told the agency that the area had suffered little damage.
"It's time to go and put this problem on the table and deal with it," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told the Sun-Sentinel in December. Sessions singled out then-FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, forced out because of his handling of Katrina, to confront reports of widespread fraud. "If he can't meet that challenge, maybe he's not the person for the job."
Collins called a hearing before her Senate panel in May on FEMA and the Florida hurricanes, and it proved to be a zinger. Her star witness was Richard L. Skinner, acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, who had audited FEMA's Florida activities and found that abuses in Miami-Dade County were particularly egregious.
Due to what Skinner called "very serious systemic weaknesses," nearly 12,600 Miami-Dade residents collected more than $31 million in payments after Hurricane Frances, although the storm hit about 100 miles to the north. The money paid for homes and cars that were not damaged, and even for funerals, when Miami-Dade reported no storm-related deaths.
Testifying then for FEMA was Brown. He conceded problems in "very marginal cases" and called Skinner "just wrong" about other findings.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, says FEMA is in dire need of oversight. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) got nowhere with their request.