House panels OK conflicting plans to fix FEMA

One measure would make the agency independent again; other would keep it within the Homeland Security Department.

Two House committees set up a battle over the future of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday, with one approving legislation to make it an independent agency again and another backing a bill to enhance its position within the Homeland Security Department.

At the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, members approved by voice vote legislation supported by panel Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to make FEMA independent. Their legislation would elevate FEMA to a Cabinet-level agency, with its director reporting to the president.

Homeland Security Committee members unanimously approved their competing bill to expand the agency's powers within the department. The measure also would establish a cadre of politically appointed undersecretaries and assistant secretaries to address specific problems, such as the ability of emergency responders to communicate with each other in emergencies.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., called his panel's bill the "first major step" to deal with FEMA's shortcomings in a "constructive, positive" way. But Young called on his committee members to "stick with the troops" to ensure that the House takes up his bill first. "We made a mistake in the structure of Homeland [Security]," Young said.

The Transportation and Infrastructure bill next goes to Government Reform.

King said that "almost everything except where FEMA ends up" is open for discussion and that the Young-Davis bill and his panel's measure are compatible in most ways. "This is not one of those brutal battles," he said. "I am certainly going to work with them."

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking Democrat James Oberstar of Minnesota noted that he recommended at the time FEMA was put into the Homeland Security Department that the White House not approve the new organizational structure. Oberstar and others said the department's primary focus on preventing terrorism has undermined FEMA's ability to deal with natural disasters and other emergencies.

Oberstar also rejected the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's idea of creating an agency to deal with national emergencies and disasters. "I don't think we should scrap FEMA," he said. "We have the framework in place. We just need to reconstitute it."

Young promised to work with committee members who raised concerns such as strengthening language to provide job protections to people who temporarily assist FEMA during emergencies.

The Homeland Security Committee bill was drafted by Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. It has the support of King and Homeland Security ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.