09 September 2005

Even Blind Men Have 20/20 Hindsight

The general consensus around the blogosphere this past week has been that Michael Brown, the appointed head of FEMA, was both inept in leading his agency's response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and generally-unqualified to head the agency at all. That consensus has been joined by pundits and politicians from both parties, and now (more-or-less) by the Bush Administration, which removed Brownie from the hurricane zone and, it hopes, from the public consciousness.

Notwithstanding, amidst all the Congressional baying for Brown's blood (and, amongst Democrats, Bush's as well), Joseph Britt raises an interesting issue -- where was all this valuable Congressional insight during Brown's confirmation hearings in 2002? Writes Britt:
None of the concerns (or outrage, incredulity, etc.) being expressed now about Mr. Brown's qualifications for the job he'd be chosen for were expressed then. Four Senators attended the hearing.

Brown got one question (from Sen. Akaka, D-HI) about whether FEMA's joining the then-new Department of Homeland Security might compromise its effectiveness; he got another (from Sen. Bennett, R-UT) about whether the new emphasis on terrorism might reduce FEMA's effectiveness in responding to natural disasters. The majority of the other questions were submitted for the record -- generally, this means they were written by committee staff, with answers prepared by agency staff and sent to the committee after the hearing -- and dealt with terrorism, concerns about FEMA's relations with states, transfer of some programs from other agencies to FEMA, and concerns about the agency's procedures for providing help to 9/11 victims. At a couple of points Brown mentioned the problem of "brain drain" at FEMA, at least a little ironic in view of current press reports about that issue (the context then was the eligibility of many FEMA employees for retirement).

What does this tell us?

The biggest thing it tells us is that in June of 2002 no one on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was thinking in terms of a major disaster on the scale of Katrina.

. . . .

There is no getting around the fact that most Senators look on confirmation hearings as an opportunity to get press for themselves. If a hearing has a low potential for this -- Brown's confirmation, coming when it did, fell into this category -- Senators have many other things they can be doing. They often go through the motions if they show up at all, and in fairness there are many nominations concerning which doing anything more would be a waste of everyone's time.

Having said that, the structure of the modern Senate makes it much more likely that underpowered nominees will slip through unchallenged.

Perhaps a bit of careful scrutiny to Brown's resume, like that applied this week by Time magazine, would have revealed his lack of relevant experience. Perhaps a few tough questions would have raised red flags. Perhaps. Instead, as Britt relates, "Normal practice then, as now, was to assume that an agency running well (as FEMA then was by most accounts) would continue to run well, and that a nominee with experience in the agency (which Brown had) was competent to be promoted." Those seem like reasonable assumptions, all things considered, but you can't both have your cake and eat it. If you fail to ask the tough questions when they might count for something, you forfeit your right to be indignant when it's discovered later that no one else asked the tough questions either.

Hindsight has revealed a terrible mistake by the Bush Administration in appointing an unqualified political hack to a key operational position, but it also reveals a failure on the parts of various Senators in both parties to identify the Administration's mistake when it could have been easily rectified. Hindsight is 20/20 . . . and worthless.

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