Not long after the waters receded in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, critics of the of the U.S. government’s response proposed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency return to its status as an independent organization.
FEMA was by then one of the Department of Homeland Security’s 22 agencies.
Some even proposed that its administrator be elevated to a cabinet-level position. The House Transportation and Infrastructure’s subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management recently passed the FEMA Independence Act of 2009, which would do exactly that.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., has 29 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, including several lawmakers from states hit hardest by hurricanes – Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
The voice vote, which passed the legislation on to the full committee, provoked a sharp rebuke from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Joe Liebermann, I-Conn. The matter has been settled, he insisted. “FEMA is exactly where it belongs,” he said in a statement.
Both he and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., said the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, passed in 2006, was building the organization into a “world class disaster preparedness and response agency.”
Collins said she was disappointed by the House vote.
“Removing FEMA from DHS makes no sense,” she said. It would “unravel all the impressive gains made in recent months since we passed our FEMA reform law. It would take us backward, not move us forward.”
Eight first responder organizations have come out in favor of keeping FEMA within DHS, she noted. More importantly, the executive branch wants to maintain the status quo. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has stated that the Obama administration has no intention of cutting FEMA loose from the department.
The bill has been referred to House Homeland Security Committee. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has introduced a Senate version of the bill, but has yet to find any cosponsors.