There are a lot of opinions floating around Washington these days about what's at stake in the battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). From my perspective as Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), I can say with certainty that the current standoff has a real impact on our ability to ensure that a wide range of emergency personnel across the country have the resources they need to do their jobs and keep our communities safer and more secure.
Caption: DHS grants help train first responders. Here, FEMA Federal Urban Search and Rescue teams from Nebraska Task Force 1 continue search operations with local first responders in a ravine. A tornado destroyed many parts of the community on May 20, 2013. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
One of my toughest days on the job at FEMA was October 1st, 2013 - the first day of the government shutdown. That day, I stood in FEMA's lobby shaking the hands of dedicated staff who had been furloughed.
It's time to get the regular budget process back on track. When you have a budget, you can really get to work. You know what Congress expects you to accomplish, and you can empower your team to get it done. At FEMA, one of our critical missions is reviewing applications and awarding grants to communities across the country, which can help firefighters, police officers, hospital workers, and emergency managers get the staff, training and equipment they need to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate a wide array of hazards.
However, our current operating situation is less than ideal. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another continuing resolution, which only provides short-term, temporary funding to our agency. This isn't just a slight technical difference - it has a major impact on our ability to assist state, local, and tribal public safety agencies. Congress has the job of legislating, and they have the job of appropriating. But as the executive branch, it is our job to execute. And our ability to execute the mission is being compromised as we continue to go through the fiscal year under a continuing resolution and the potential for another shutdown. In the long run, this uncertainty wastes taxpayer dollars. Making matters worse, the current situation is a showstopper for our grant program. Our application process for grants should have started in October; it is now February and we still haven't been able to issue new grants. Moreover, during these ongoing continuing resolutions, local first responders from across the U.S. have made plans to attend training classes at one of our three national training centers, where they will learn valuable skills they can bring back to their communities - only to have a wrench thrown in the works caused by uncertainty in the budget. Our state, local, and tribal partners are facing increasingly urgent choices about how they will make ends meet without matching FEMA grants. As a result these agencies may have to curtail their activities or even employ furloughs of their own as their budgets are stretched even thinner.
I've heard some claim that DHS operations wouldn't suffer too much during a shutdown. I can tell you this is categorically false. In October 2013, 86% of our permanent workforce (close to 4,000 people) was furloughed, which brought the funding of ongoing recovery activities and grant-making to a halt. As luck would have it, once our lights were turned off, Tropical Storm Karen formed in the Gulf of Mexico, and we had to recall 240 members of our staff to prepare for lifesaving operations only. Even then, we couldn't support them administratively or prepare for any potential recovery efforts - a major detriment to our mission to support survivors.
Lurching along with temporary funding, or no funding, prevents us from doing our part to keep the American people safe. The best way to operate the federal government is through the normal process, in which Congress appropriates the funds, the President signs a bill, and we have a real budget to operate under for the fiscal year. In so doing, the public is best served, taxpayers get the best value, and those on the front lines have the resources they need to do their jobs. That's what the American people expect, and that's what we need now.