Investigators to shed new light on military’s role in Katrina response
Congressional team may also suggest restructuring of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
House and Senate investigators probing the government's response to Hurricane Katrina are wading knee-deep through documents about the catastrophic storm that prompted angry accusations of bureaucratic ineptness. More than 50 aides are trying to figure out what went wrong, when it went wrong, and ultimately, who is responsible.
History books are filled with pages about high-profile congressional investigations, such as the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings. Many inquiries required years of questioning and cost millions in taxpayer dollars.
By contrast, the lawmakers and staff working on the Katrina investigations -- headed by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine -- are working within a timeframe of six months and with less than $1 million in each chamber to produce their findings. Nevertheless, they believe that when they issue their reports in February, the hurricane inquiries will be on par with other major investigations.
"Clearly, [the deadline] is our biggest challenge," said David Marin, the deputy chief of staff on the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina, which Davis is chairing. But the deadline also "helped to shape and focus the scope of our investigation," Marin said. "There comes a time when you have enough information."
To gather evidence, the investigators are sifting through hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewing hundreds of officials in Washington and the Gulf Coast region. The aides believe that the effort is likely to lead to crucial policy changes on several issues dealing with the government's response to natural disasters or to a terrorist attack.
"I think it will lead to major legislation," said Michael Bopp, staff director of Collins's committee in the Senate. "The role of the Department of Defense is likely to be one of the most significant findings of this investigation."
The Senate report could contradict the positive media attention surrounding the military's response to the storm, Bopp said. He added that the report may also recommend reorganizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was widely criticized for its sluggish response in the critical days following the hurricane, and tweaking the law governing FEMA relief assistance, known as the Stafford Act.
House investigators said their report could lend weight to President Bush's argument for a greater military role in domestic crises. "It will crystallize a lot of issues," said Larry Halloran, deputy counsel on the House select committee. He suggested that Congress might change the 1878 law prohibiting the military from acting as a domestic police force, to allow the activation of troops early in a crisis.
Despite the investigators' hopes for far-reaching policy changes, politics have overshadowed the congressional probes into Katrina from the very beginning. In early September, shortly after the hurricane struck, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., announced they had agreed to create a bipartisan, bicameral committee to conduct an investigation.
But Democrats balked, arguing that the GOP-controlled Congress could not objectively investigate the Republican White House, and they called for an independent, 9/11-style commission. "An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., complained at the time.
The partisan standoff led to the separate House and Senate investigations. Ultimately, Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed to work together in Collins's committee. But in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the select committee a sham and refused to appoint members.
House Republicans have used the spotlight of public hearings to criticize the Democrats' position, charging that they are shirking their constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch. Davis has vowed to conduct the investigation "by the book" and "let the chips fall where they may," even if blame lands on the shoulders of the Bush administration or the Republican-led Congress.
Likewise, Halloran, who has conducted several congressional inquiries, insisted that partisanship has been sidelined in the Katrina probes. "One thing that you learn very early up here is that the institutional interests of the branches override party politics" during an investigation, he said. "Those interests trump party every time."
Fairly or not, though, it seems that the media have paid far more attention to Capitol Hill's partisan sniping over Katrina than to the actual investigations. Still, some veteran observers are heartened to see Congress attempting to flex its oversight responsibilities, which critics charge have been badly neglected in recent years.
"Oversight investigations are a critical function of Congress," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. "Just because most don't attract blockbuster media coverage doesn't mean they are inconsequential."
But former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who served in the House from 1971 to 1990 and is now a guest scholar at Brookings, contended that while a few congressional investigations have produced significant findings, most just waste taxpayer dollars and divert lawmakers' attention from policy-making.
"Investigations are on the front ranks of something Congress is not good at," Frenzel said. "The parties get all mixed up" in politics.
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