Friday, May 19, 2006

Second House panel says FEMA should be independent

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 Thursday.

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 Wednesday.

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 year.

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 Orleans.

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.