Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asks a question during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in July. Rubio first introduced the bill in April 2019.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asks a question during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in July. Rubio first introduced the bill in April 2019. Greg Nash/Pool via AP

Bipartisan Law Enacted to Improve FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Contracts

The law is based on recommendations from a 2018 Government Accountability Office report. 

President Trump enacted a bipartisan measure last week to improve the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s process for issuing contracts prior to disasters to ensure readiness. 

After the government’s largely problematic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to the FEMA director resigning and confusion with emergency contracts, Congress mandated that FEMA issue advance contracts, so it can be better equipped to mobilize when disaster strikes. Then came 2017––a historically detrimental year for hurricanes and wildfires. 

As a result, the Government Accountability Office made recommendations in December 2018 about how FEMA can improve its communication with states and localities for advance contracts, and update and clarify its guidance for contracting officers. FEMA concurred with the recommendations and they are the basis for the “Federal Advance Contracts Enhancement Act," which amended the “2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act.” It passed in the Senate on November 7 and House on December 18. 

“At a time when we are facing a climate crisis and unprecedented natural disasters, we cannot afford to have FEMA behind the ball on its advance contracts,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in December. Thompson introduced the bill in the House. “After years of systemic flaws, it was clear we needed to make necessary reforms to FEMA’s advance contracting process so the country will be able to tackle recovery from future disasters more effectively...I look forward to working with FEMA as they improve their advance contracting.”

Specifically, the bill will require FEMA to ensure it gives updated and full information to state and local governments about what advance contracts are available; update guidance for agency personnel on the acquisition process and timeframe, regularly inform the relevant congressional committees on how it’s implementing GAO’s recommendations and improve its program to monitor major acquisitions. 

 FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ advance contract obligations for the three hurricanes and California wildfires in 2017 were about $4.5 billion, which was approximately 56% of the agencies’ total contract spending for the disasters, according to GAO. The legislation does not mention the Army Corps, however. 

The law “will ensure that the federal response will be more effective and efficient,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who first introduced the bill in April 2019, said in a press release last month.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, stated in the same release that these “common sense reforms” would help recovery efforts as well as save taxpayers’ dollars. The bill is one of the many Trump signed into law during the holiday week as his administration winds down.

President-elect Biden has yet to announce his pick for FEMA administrator, but contenders include: Deanne Criswell, commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department; James Featherstone, long-time emergency management official in Los Angeles; Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services; Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management; and Michael Spraybe, executive director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, according to a report from E&E News on December 16.