May 18, 2006

Second House panel says FEMA should be independent

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government's troubled
disaster-response agency would recover its status as an
independent organization with a direct line to the president
under a bill that won approval from a second House committee on

By a voice vote, the House Government Reform Committee
approved a bill that would pull out the Federal Emergency
Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security. The
House Transportation Committee approved the same bill on

Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives
have not yet decided whether to support that approach or back
an alternate proposal that would keep FEMA within Homeland
Security, as the Bush administration wishes and other
committees in Congress favor.

FEMA and the Homeland Security Department have been
criticized for their lackluster and disorganized response to
Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,300 people and caused at
least $80 billion in damage in Louisiana and Mississippi last

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has come under
criticism from lawmakers in both parties and FEMA's director
during Katrina, Michael Brown, quit after thousands of storm
victims were stranded for days in a lawless, flooded New

The bill backed by the two committees would remove FEMA
from Homeland Security and restore the status it enjoyed before
it was absorbed into the mammoth domestic security agency,
which is responsible for everything from immigration to airline
passenger screening.

"The agency was steadily bled to death by its many new
siblings in a parent organization focused on terrorism. That
could not happen under this proposal," said Government Reform
Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican.

The committee removed a provision that would have given
FEMA's director a five-year term. Davis said the agency could
lose clout if a new president took office in the middle of the
director's term.

The Homeland Security Department has said that it should
maintain control of FEMA because it could better coordinate
with the Coast Guard and other areas of the department in
future disasters.

That approach is embodied in a bill approved Wednesday by
the House Homeland Security Committee, a third committee with
some jurisdiction over FEMA. The Senate Homeland Security and
Government Affairs Committee also supports keeping FEMA within
the Homeland Security Department.