03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Other Essential Reform Joe Lieberman Is Blocking

Where does he find the time?

Not only has Sen. Joe Lieberman been working overtime to smother health reform, he's parked himself squarely in the path of another badly-needed, long-awaited change.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last Friday passed the FEMA Independence Act, which would break FEMA free of the Department of Homeland Security and restore it to its Clinton-era status as a stand-alone, Cabinet-level agency. The FEMA chief would once again report directly to the President.

When Congress created DHS after September 11th, it rolled together 22 federal agencies, including FEMA. If cramming 22 bureaucracies under one roof sounds like a good idea, here are two words: Hurricane Katrina.

But before the reform bill could even reach the full House floor, Senator Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and his colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, (R-Maine) were already trashing it.

"FEMA is exactly where it belongs," Lieberman proclaimed in a press release.

"Removing FEMA from DHS makes no sense," Collins said in the same statement. "It would ignore the input of first-responders."

Actually, it is Lieberman and Collins who are ignoring first responders.

Last year, the senators invited several emergency managers
to testify at a hearing before their Senate Homeland Security Committee, (which Lieberman chairs and Collins is the ranking member). They asked the experts, what else can Congress do to improve FEMA?

Said Jane Bullock, the FEMA chief of staff during the Clinton Administration:

"Move FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and reestablish it as an Independent Executive Branch agency whose Director reports directly to the President. Reinstate the Director of FEMA as a member of the President's Cabinet."

Nancy Dragani, a veteran of the Army National Guard and now director of Ohio's Emergency Management agency, said:

"The FEMA Administrator must continue to serve as the primary advisor to the President on all issues related to disasters and emergencies, and have the full authority granted to the position through the Stafford Act and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act."

Larry Gispert, former President of the International Association of Emergency Managers, compared submerging FEMA in DHS to "requiring the Department of Defense to do both war-fighting and diplomacy."

"The missions of the Department of Defense and the Department of State could never be combined - and neither should consequence and crisis management," Gispert said.

Somehow, after that hearing, the message didn't sink in with Lieberman and Collins. Maybe it would if they listened to former FEMA Deputy Director Mike Walker. Speaking last year to a group of fellow emergency managers, Walker called the status quo "a morally corrupt policy."

"Emergency management is an enduring mission" Walker said. "That mission should not compete for resources with what should be a temporary mission - reducing the threat of violent, radical extremism.

The same official dealing with that large task should not have the time to also deal with a hurricane building in the Atlantic. Nor does the Administrator of FEMA need a cabinet secretary looking over his shoulder or another operations center second-guessing every decision."

Small wonder that the experts are nearly unanimous in deriding the decision to fold FEMA into DHS. What was once an independent agency of 3,000 emergency response professionals is now a smallish cog in a federal super-department, one that employs 180,000 people.

As a result, the disaster professionals must seek permissions and signatures and paperwork from Homeland Security officials before they can take action. Even when rivers are rising or hurricanes are hammering the shorelines.

So when Alabama asked FEMA to send ice after Hurricane Dennis, the request disappeared into the bureaucracy, and the ice never arrived.

As Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast a few weeks later, FEMA officials tried again, and sent ice to staging areas throughout the south, so that it would be ready to go wherever it was needed. After the hurricane made landfall, the emergency managers issued directives for the ice to be distributed. Again their instructions melted into the ether.

Instead, the ice made circuitous journeys around the country, never arriving in New Orleans or Waveland, Mississippi, or any of the other communities asking for it. NBC News tracked one truck on a two-week trek from Wisconsin to Louisiana to Georgia to South Carolina to Maryland. It never did deliver its cargo.

Even more appalling, similar bureaucratic bungling kept thousands of hurricane evacuees out of post-disaster housing.

In New Orleans, Katrina destroyed more than 200,000 homes and displaced 750,000 people. Shortly after the storm, the Department of Veterans' Affairs realized it owned 7,000 vacant houses thereso it offered them to FEMA for hurricane evacuees. FEMA quickly accepted, and the VA dispatched workers to get the homes ready- until DHS officials stepped in and ordered them to stop. No one moves in, DHS said, until it draws up a legal agreement.

The houses then sat empty for more than three months.

With the ice and the VA houses, the DHS' second-guessing hampered FEMA's ability to respond to disaster. But FEMA also loses when it has to compete with DHS for resources. To borrow Larry Gispert's analogy, imagine the State Department having to ask the Pentagon for money.

Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates battling it out for a $40 billion payday would make a great episode of "Celebrity Death Match," but it would be terrible federal policy.

After the 2004 hurricane season, when four hurricanes and a tropical storm pummeled Florida, then-FEMA director Michael Brown realized he'd need a bigger budget for 2005. Brown could not take his request to Congress or the President; instead, he had to ask the DHS. DHS said no.

A year later, when Dennis and Katrina and Rita nearly bled FEMA dry, Congress had to rush to pass emergency appropriations bills to keep up with the response, which was, of course, famously inadequate.

The FEMA Independence Act acknowledges what first responders have been saying for years: that it's poor strategy to let anti-terrorism officials interfere with disaster response; that you probably don't want to give one federal agency the right to veto another agency's budget; that allowing DHS to absorb FEMA was a mistake.

And that, in and of itself, is probably why Lieberman is so bent on killing it.

Lieberman was the principal author and lead co-sponsor of the Department of National Homeland Security Act of 2001. He drafted the legislation in less than four weeks, proposed it on the one-month anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and made FEMA a centerpiece of the new department he envisioned.

When Hurricane Katrina revealed the folly of this choice, Lieberman doubled down. With Collins as his co-sponsor, they proposed the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006, which added some resources and rearranged some staffing and implemented "strategies." And it emphasized that the FEMA Administrator should report to the President, and not the Homeland Security Secretary, during a catastrophe.

Collins and Lieberman seem to think that fixed everything. "We cannot argue with success," Collins said.

Maybe by "success," she means not really changing anything.

Meanwhile, most of the time, FEMA stays under the DHS big tent with all its bureaucratic red tape, and maneuvering, and competition for resources.

The status quo continues to hamstring FEMA's ability to move quickly when disaster strikes. Right now something needs to move quickly -- and it's Joe Lieberman.