The House of Representatives has approved creation of a special congressional committee to investigate government responses to hurricane Katrina by a vote of 224 to 188. Often heated partisan debate coincided with testimony by emergency management officials from across the United States about what needs to be done to prevent a repetition of problems that plagued the response to the hurricane.
The political undercurrents swirling in the post-Katrina debate were visible again during House debate on the proposal for the committee.
Opposition Democrats said the panel will not be bipartisan because Republicans will control selection of its 20 members, after consulting with the minority. Republicans rejected this and a main Democrat complaint that Republicans would control subpoenas, calling Democratic allegations part of a political agenda.
Congressman Gene Taylor, who lost his Mississippi home in the hurricane, was among Democrats urging creation of an independent commission modeled on the one that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
He had this exchange with California Republican David Dreier.
TAYLOR: "Our nation works best when we work together, and a September 11-type commission composed of whoever needs to be subpoenaed, is what we need to do."
DREIER: "I think it is absolutely reprehensible to believe that any member of this House, Democrat or Republican, would want to do anything that would jeopardize the ability to find out exactly what happened leading up to hurricane Katrina and exactly what happened in the aftermath."
As the House debate raged, numerous witnesses testified to the House Government Reform Committee about lessons to be learned from events in New Orleans and other areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, said fault can be found with the response at the federal, state and local levels, and supports an independent commission. "I believe [that] while the Congress does conduct its oversight responsibilities, that there [should] be an independent commission like the September 11 commission," said Mr. Morial.
Also participating were emergency management officials from Washington, DC; Miami, Florida; and Los Angeles, California.
Constance Perett, administrator of the Office Emergency Management in Los Angeles says one of the lessons is that local officials need to have the resources they need. "More resources absolutely need to be directed to the local level," said Mr. Perett. "You hear the expression that all disasters are local, well they are. They start in somebody's backyard, so local government needs the resources to be prepared."
Committee Chairman Congressman Tom Davis said events in New Orleans highlighted the danger of assuming that broad changes in government bureaucracy will automatically translate into competent action on the ground.
"We are here today because in the tragic aftermath of Katrina, we are again confronted with the vast divide between policy creation and policy implementation, confronted with the life and death difference between theory and practice," said Mr. Davis.
Aside from uncovering the causes of what he calls inaction and ineptitude on the part of local, state and federal officials, Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings said there should be a wider focus. "Let us collectively seize the opportunity to not only right the wrongs of emergency mis-management that were so painfully illustrated during and after hurricane Katrina, but the wrong of poverty that forces upwards of 37 million Americans to routinely weather the storms of failing schools, poor health care and limited opportunities," said Mr. Cummings.
Among recommendations heard Thursday was one for a special compensation fund for victims of hurricane Katrina, modeled on steps taken after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The latest congressional actions include House and Senate bills providing tax relief for hurricane victims and those helping them, and a range of other measures on housing and medical issues.
Congress has so far approved more than $62 billion for short-term post-Katrina relief, but the latest estimates of the costs of recovery and reconstruction in hard-hit Gulf states have risen to at least $200 billion.