Bush, lawmakers at odds over qualifications for FEMA chief

Remarks in President Bush's signing statement on the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security spending bill regarding the leadership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have prompted criticism from both House and Senate lawmakers.

In the statement, Bush said he disagrees with a requirement in the appropriations act (H.R. 5441) that the next director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency must have at least five years of related experience. He signaled he might not abide by the requirement.

The appropriations bill language "purports to limit the qualifications of the pool of persons from [which] the president may select the appointee in a manner that rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office," the Oct. 4 statement said.

But Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an Oct. 6 letter to the White House that in light of FEMA's poor performance during Hurricane Katrina, the president must "follow the black-letter intent of our legislation." Michael Brown, director of FEMA when the hurricane hit, lacked relevant experience, contributing to the agency's insufficient response, Thompson said.

"Choosing an appointee without an emergency management background to manage federal emergency management is both reckless and dangerous," Thompson wrote. "[T]he Congress has previously found it suitable to impose qualifications upon executive appointees in positions of a nonpartisan nature."

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators sent a similar letter to Bush, demanding that emergency managers have the experience mandated in the bill. The three signers were Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., ranking member of that committee. "The bottom line is that we need FEMA leadership that meets high standards," the senators wrote. "Disregarding provisions of the act that are intended to strengthen those standards is a move in the wrong direction."

The language in the spending legislation also gives FEMA's chief heightened authority and the new title of "administrator." In May, when lawmakers were discussing a similar proposal to reform FEMA, Collins said that despite current director R. David Paulison's qualifications, he might need re-evaluation.

Privacy groups also have criticized the signing statement. Bush said in it that he has the authority to edit DHS reports pertaining to privacy rules. The "department and agency shall ensure that any reports or recommendations submitted to the Congress are subjected to appropriate executive branch review and approval," the statement said.

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