Analysis & Opinions - Los Angeles Times

Appointments That Disappoint

| Sep. 12, 2005

Today, much of Washington, D.C., and much of the nation, will turn its attention to the confirmation hearing of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States.

The hearings will give the American public an odd sense of the Senate's constitutional advice-and-consent role. For most Senate-confirmed positions, a few senators show up for the committee hearing and ask a few questions, the nomination is sent to the full Senate and the candidate is in. John Bolton's hearing for his U.N. post was an anomaly; most of the time, it's a simple voice vote. That's how it happened with the appointment of the much-embattled FEMA director, Michael Brown.

Brown showed breathtaking ineptitude in his performance during the Hurricane Katrina disaster and was replaced Friday as the overseer of the relief operation. Much has been said about his padded resume, his political connections and his penchant for Arabian horses.

Far less has been said about how he got there in the first place.

His journey tells us something about the role of the Senate. More significant, it tells us that all this talk about moving pieces again — changing FEMA's status, getting FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, etc. — doesn't mean a thing. It's all about the people, not just the pieces.

In June 2002, Brown was confirmed as deputy director of FEMA, which was then an independent agency. At that time, Senate Democrats were in the majority. Two Democrats and two Republicans were present for Brown's hearing before the Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The hearing lasted 42 minutes. Perhaps that shouldn't be too surprising; the deputy director would not be likely to garner too much attention. And the earlier appointment by President Bush of Joe Allbaugh, a well-known Republican operative, to be director of FEMA had already suggested that the president's commitment to emergency management and the professionalism of the agency was negligible. And this was after Sept. 11, 2001, when everyone should have known the importance of federal support for local and state first-responders.

Nonetheless, the hearing was uneventful, and Brown was sent to the Senate for easy confirmation.

In what would amount to a surprising turn of events for Brown, in the background of these hearings was the proposal for a Department of Homeland Security. By November 2002, the new department was created. And its authorizing legislation sowed the seeds for Brown's elevation.

The Homeland Security Act exempted appointees from other agencies about to be subsumed into the DHS from having to be reconfirmed. The standard was whether the new duties of the person to fill the new offices in the department were "germane to their original offices." If yes, then no new confirmation proceeding was required.

By late 2002, FEMA and its chief became part of Homeland Security. Allbaugh left in 2003, and Brown was allowed to take over with barely anyone noticing. His previous role was deemed to be "germane" to his new one, and no reconfirmation was necessary.

What is also telling about Brown's hearings for his deputy post was what he said about his role: not much. Indeed, the lack of questioning regarding specific plans and proposals is eerily discomforting.

But, as the White House tries to climb out of a disaster due in no small measure to its own bad planning, it is worth remembering what Brown did say, because it suggests that all along Brown knew what his role should be. In response to questions about local evacuation plans, Brown said: "We should not just wait for someone to petition or request that we evaluate…. It would be my intent to somehow implement the ongoing evaluation so we do not have to look in hindsight and say, gosh, we wish we had looked at that."

Gosh, we wish he had looked at that. As Brown noted, "state and local governments are looking to us for leadership." True, and it was well known then.

At the very least, Congress should reconsider its position of "once approved, always approved." The pieces of the puzzle that are likely to be arranged in response to our most recent crisis will do nothing if we do not also ensure that those who serve in these positions are qualified. The president should have much to answer for on his appointment of Brown, and the Senate should not be let off the hook.

There is no question that Roberts is a significant appointment for the nation. There are millions of residents of the Gulf Coast who would likely think the same for the head of FEMA.

JULIETTE KAYYEM is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Her book, "Preserving Liberty in an Age of Terror," will be published in October by the MIT Press.

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For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Appointments That Disappoint.” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2005.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem