Some Steps Congress Can Take to Prevent Another Katrina

Posted September 13, 2005 at 4:43pm

Last week, I took Congress to task for its four-year-long failure to deal with lapses in the communications system that became evident on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as for Congress’ failure to provide any effective oversight in homeland security and disaster response, especially its failure to provide adequate scrutiny at the time the Department of Homeland Security was created. In this column, I want to provide some suggestions for what to do now. [IMGCAP(1)]

But before I get there, I have to address another area of embarrassing failure on the part of Congress (once again): the continuity issue.

For years after 9/11, Congress dithered on the question of how to make sure the legislative branch could be quickly reconstituted after a devastating attack. It finally responded with a bill to mandate quick elections if 100 House Members were killed. Before the August recess, the House bludgeoned the Senate into accepting its accelerated elections bill, without a hearing or any feedback or scrutiny, by attaching this substantive piece of legislation — one imposing an unfunded mandate on states and localities with no federal spending involved — to an appropriations bill.

Procedurally, this was offensive. Substantively, the bill is woefully inadequate. To illustrate, let us use the Hurricane Katrina situation as a template.

Imagine that what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi had happened more widely — say, a series of terrorist attacks causing mass havoc in 10 states, not two or three, with all or most of their lawmakers killed in one of the attacks on the Capitol. What would happen under this law? Louisiana and Mississippi would have had to have chosen the candidates for all their seats days ago — even as rescue operations continued, with all officials mobilized every minute of every day to provide basic services, and with the states coping with hundreds of thousands of evacuees.

Election officials would have then had basically until the end of this month to get all the polling places ready to go, print ballots or prepare their electronic machines (all assuming there is electricity to run them) and the candidates would have to have begun to run their campaigns. Oh, one other “technicality”: voters would have to be home to cast their ballots. Or found, very quickly, to cast absentee ballots (which would have to be printed in the days after the candidates were selected. Maybe at the local Kinko’s — oops, it’s under water). And voter registration records, in some cases also under water, would have to be uncovered to make sure that the voters were voting in the right districts — including voters without any ID.

This is the core of Congress’ response to the terrorist threat to governing institutions, and it is farcical.

Now on to a road map for dealing with some of the broader problems. First, communications. It should be an urgent priority for Congress to carve out an adequate spectrum for public safety and first responders. In other words, no more dithering, no more puppets on the string of broadcasters. It does not take a lot of spectrum space to make this happen — a mere 24 Mhz out of the 700 Mhz band now used by broadcasters for their analog signals, which should be coming to a swift conclusion anyhow. We need a date certain, and a rapidly expedited date.

In the meantime, Congress should provide backing for the Federal Communications Commission’s desire to free up some of the unused spectrum that now provides “white space” between broadcast channels — space which, given new technology, can be used without interference and can supplement the airwaves now used by emergency responders. This white space also can provide unlicensed opportunities for low power local transmissions to enable citizens and emergency responders to communicate after a catastrophe and to get up and running quickly if their equipment takes a hit. The commercial broadcasters have tried to beat the drums against this use, but virtually every major independent expert, including those at the FCC, has challenged them. This set of issues should no longer be in the usual realm of power politics, where the National Association of Broadcasters has long reigned supreme, but rather in the realm of urgent public priority.

In addition, Congress also needs to step in to mandate that all first responders have interoperable radio equipment, and equipment that can be easily replaced and recharged.

Two other issues need to be addressed. One is the structure of Congress itself as it deals with homeland security and the response to attacks or catastrophes.

Congress did implement many of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. But one area where it fell short, to no big surprise, was its own capacity. The House changed its homeland security panel into a permanent standing committee, but did not give it adequate jurisdiction. Not much can or will be done about this problem immediately. But as Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and the majority Republican leadership move now to name a chairman for the committee to replace the excellent Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), it should put a premium on choosing a strong chairman who will not hesitate to take on other chairmen in turf battles, and most importantly will see oversight of the DHS as a noble and critical function. There are several good choices, but one to keep in mind is Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a strong conservative who understands the need for an independent Congress and Congressional role.

As for the Senate, it is ridiculous not to give its homeland security committee jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, which Katrina is showing to be a critical piece of the homeland security puzzle.

The other issue is the distribution of homeland security funds to states and localities. There is not enough money available for first responders — period. But the money that is available is misallocated, with the usual desire to give every district a piece of the pie reigning supreme.

There are some commendable formulas being debated out there. But in the end, if Congress is left to its own devices, and if the small states that dominate the Senate and its homeland security panel exert themselves, we will fritter away a lot of money and leave the most vulnerable areas inadequately protected. That includes areas most vulnerable to natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

I think it is time to consider the Base Realignment and Closure Commission model for this important need. We all owe former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) a vote of thanks for establishing the framework for dealing with base closings. It is imperfect, to be sure, but Armey found a good way to get bases closed while retaining a real role for Congress and protecting it against its worst parochial instincts. A parallel approach could work for allocating first-responder funds, hopefully channeling the money more efficiently to where it is most needed.

Of course, that alone is not enough. States and localities also waste a lot of the money they get, sending it within states to all counties when some are far more vulnerable than others, and using some of the money for comparatively frivolous items. Congress should tie the grant of these monies to states with state plans that use models similar to BRAC to allocate their funds fairly, judiciously and efficiently.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.