Fixing FEMA

FIXING FEMA…. Before George W. Bush took office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a model of efficiency and effectiveness. For reasons that have never made any sense, the president decided to undermine the agency, strip its leadership of cabinet-level status, and stick it with unqualified leadership.

FEMA went from being one of the more impressive federal agencies to a national joke. There was some talk a couple of years ago of Congress scraping the agency altogether and starting over.

The Washington Post reports today that the beleaguered emergency-management department is poised to get “a facelift under the Obama administration.”

First off, the likely plan is to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that by itself would help restore the pride that folks at FEMA felt when it was an independent agency.

Second, there’s increasing talk that former director James Lee Witt, who took over the then-troubled agency at the start of the Clinton administration and left it eight years later with a much-enhanced reputation, is coming back from retirement to run FEMA for six months to a year, to whip it into shape.

Now, there’s some question as to whether Witt’s disaster recovery firm overbilled Louisiana as part of its post-Katrina work, which would no doubt be explored in detail during confirmation hearings.

What’s beyond question, however, is that an overhaul of FEMA under Obama would be most welcome. A “Human Capital Survey” of federal employees in 2002 found that FEMA ranked dead last — a key warning, before Hurricane Katrina, that there was a real problem at the agency. Now, of course, FEMA is under the Department of Homeland Security, but in the most recent survey of federal employees, FEMA ranks 211th out of 222 in departmental subunits.

Making the FEMA director cabinet-level again would be a good first step. Giving it real leadership and functionality wouldn’t hurt, either.