FEMA Reforms: Much Ado About Nothing

This month, Congress will likely consider three bills, two in the House and one in the Senate, that would reorganize or move the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). None has much merit.

These proposals would impose costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary organizational changes that would add to the federal bureaucracy and hamper, not strengthen, how the nation responds to disasters. Congress should reject them and allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to continue the reforms it is already undertaking.

Disaster to Disaster

FEMA is responsible for coordinating support to state and local governments in the event of disasters. When DHS was created, Congress folded the agency into DHS; previously, FEMA was an independent agency. In the wake of the FEMA’s inadequate response to Katrina, Congress wants changes, but the proposals look like disasters as well.

  • A Bad Blast from the Past. One bill would reestablish FEMA as an independent agency. This proposal is based on the belief that, before the creation of DHS, FEMA performed more effectively. FEMA, however, has always lacked the capacity to deal with large-scale disasters. An independent FEMA would have performed just as poorly during Katrina. Moreover, splitting FEMA and DHS contradicts the rationale for creating the department: the consolidation of all the agencies with significant responsibilities for protecting the homeland under a single authority so their actions can be fully integrated.
  • Destroy FEMA To Save It. A second bill leaves FEMA in DHS, but it calls for restructuring and renaming the agency, and adding layers of organization and missions. This recommendation assumes that more government and more spending solve problems. Disasters require effective decentralized execution — strong community, local, state government, and regional responses — not more bureaucrats in Washington. A new bloated bureaucracy will not make FEMA an effective national disaster coordinating authority.
  • An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come. Another bill would consolidate all preparedness activities, such as planning, exercises, training, grant management, coordination, and response functions under FEMA. This is a misguided policy. FEMA, an agency that already has trouble doing its job, would be overwhelmed with additional responsibilities. Additionally, over time most of the agency’s resources and attention would shift to the high-profile "response" missions and neglect the unglamorous "preparedness" tasks.

Last summer, just before Katrina, DHS announced the creation of an Undersecretary of Preparedness. After Katrina, DHS proposed reforms to address FEMA’s shortfalls in planning, communicating, and coordinating with other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector during large-scale disasters. These concrete initiatives will fix the problem; congressional meddling that rearranges government offices and demands disruptive and unproductive changes will not.