Tuesday, September 13, 2005

FEMA: What's The Problem?

Rebecca MacKinnon is one of the more interesting bloggers out there. She's a former CNN reporter turned blogger/academic, now a research Fellow at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. On her blog, RConversation, Ms. MacKinnon posts a Bloomberg report about the apparently high incidence of political patronage among top-level Bush FEMA appointees. The article's point seems to be that President Bush appointed cronies to FEMA slots, unlike President Clinton, who appointed the highly-regarded James Lee Witt and others with real disaster management experience.

I have found MacKinnon to be fair in her approach to politically-charged issues, but I don't understand why she thinks the Bloomberg article is worth posting in full. What strikes me as most interesting about the piece is that it assumes that experienced FEMA leadership would have averted many of the problems that arose during the New Orleans/Gulf Coast disaster. I haven't seen one shred of evidence of that.

Bloomberg relies heavily on Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University and Director of a Brookings institution center. (I must admit that Light's status as a New York-based academic and officer in a liberal think-tank does not inspire confidence in the objectivity of his views. But at least I admit my biases!) Referring to the current FEMA leadership, Light says:

"These guys kind of have a deer-in-the headlights look; they haven't been through this kind of thing and it shows,'' said Light, the founding director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research group. "I'm afraid FEMA has gone backwards in time to the old era of a more traditional campaign-loyalty position.''
Light was less critical of FEMA in this Washington Post op-ed written in the early days of the disaster. In that piece, Light seemed to see the failures Katrina exposed in a more broad-based manner: Everyone was blowing it. In the Bloomberg piece, the story is all about President Bush's political appointments, as if they were the cause of the problems.

Not that President Bush deserves a pass on this one. He clearly did not "get" the enormity of what was happening along the Gulf Coast and made more than one misstep, and as Charles Krauthammer points out, GWB was

Late, slow, and simply out of tune with the urgency and magnitude of the disaster. The second he heard that the levees had been breached in New Orleans, he should have canceled his schedule and addressed the country on national television to mobilize it both emotionally and physically to assist in the disaster. His flyover on the way to Washington was the worst possible symbolism. And his Friday visit was so tone-deaf and politically disastrous that he had to fly back three days later.
Richard Nixon once famously said that he had given his enemies a sword, "and they stuck it in." GWB has done the same thing. White House seems committed to the strategy of riding this controversy out, rather than taking any action designed to regain the initiative. I hope it works.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I don't see anything in her post that "assumes that experienced FEMA leadership would have averted many of the problems that arose during the New Orleans/Gulf Coast disaster"

Her post seems to me to be a very efficient takedown of The DHS spokesman's claim that "It's certainly not the case that the senior positions are rewards for political loyalty"

Now clearly, a lot of people are attempting to blame the FEMA for what happened after Katrina; I just don't see it in this article. What she does do is give good reason to believe that the Bush adminstration filled senior positions in FEMA with political appointees without the experience of those who held those positions under Clinton. I think it is possible to blame that as much on Congress' decision to put FEMA under DHS; from this and other stories, it seems that many senior people left DHS when it was demoted in that way.


Posted by Elisin

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 8:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elisin: Your point is well-taken. I don't like the cronyism in a spot as sensitive as FEMA. Even so, that's what happens in government. But I don't see the significance of the cronyism unless it was causally connected to the ability of the government to deal with the situation in New Orleans.

Thanks for the insight. 

Posted by The

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 10:47:00 AM  

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