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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

KATRINA: Will Senate Panel's Hurricane Response Probe Become a Political Witchhunt?

The answer to the question posed by the headline above is almost certainly "yes" because the probe announced yesterday by Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-ME, will be conducted by a panel consisting mostly of hyper-partisan Democrats and wish-washy GOP moderates. It will be the quintessential Washington "investigation."

For that reason, the panel's main focus will be on two issues: First, since we all "know" the best way to address a problem is with a federal bureaucracy issuing reams of regulations and directives, financed with lots of federal tax dollars, it won't matter how convincing is the evidence one way or the other regarding the response by FEMA and other federal agencies.

What will matter is that the inquiry will be used as an opportunity to make the case for more bureaucracy, more federal control and more federal spending. Since the governing assumption of all Washington probes is that federal control is the sine qua non of rationality, whatever problems there were with the response must have been a product of a flawed administration.

Fix the flawed administration and the bureaucracy will be able to fulfill the promises of its political backers. This is always the fundamental approach of the governing class - the problem is how the bureaucracy was managed, not that the bureaucracy itself is inherently unable to deliver its promises.

Second, since the underlying concept of bureaucratic control from Washington is unchallenged, the flawed process must be accompanyied by flawed administrators. FEMA Director Mike Brown might as well hand in his resignation now and beat the Senate probers to the punch. One or more of the bureaucratic managers who don't fix flawed bureaucratic processes always become fall guys.

Then whoever Bush appoints to replace Brown will go through the motions of reorganizing FEMA, transferring or otherwise "disciplining" a handful of middle managers who will also become fall guys and otherwise "reforming" the agency, per the wishes of Congress, the MSM and the Washington Establishment.

At the end, the federal bureaucracy will be preserved and likely strengthened, everybody will think the problems have been taken care of and the ugly truth - that a distant bureaucracy is always the least efficient way of dealing with a natural or man-made disaster - will be lost until the next calamity.

Others in the Blogosphere have somewhat different takes on the Senate probe. Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters is willing to give the Senate probe the benefit of the doubt up to a point. Regardless of the usual atmospherics surrounding such a probe, the important facts will get out and the American people will see what needs to be done:

"Public hearings change the dynamic and force the media to report developments that otherwise get little mention. Almost no media outlets have mentioned the City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which acknowledges that the city remains the primary agency responsible for disaster management.
"It also gives a detailed response plan for the mayor, and hearings will show that Ray Nagin's office did little if anything to follow it. The media will have little choice but to cover those facts as they get reported in public hearings.
"Right now, the dishthrowers have the media's attention. Hearings will force the media to cover the facts, rather than the Outrage Of The Hour. They will spin the facts, they will emphasize some over others, but the facts will get out on C-SPAN and through the New Media -- and the debate will return to the facts, and the public will listen.

"Based on the meltdown of the media on Katrina, it may be the only way for Americans to understand what happened in Louisiana this past fortnight."

I hope Ed is right but I suspect the outcome will be much less useful.

Hugh Hewitt is more concerned about the Senate panel degenerating into a smear campaign aimed at President Bush:

"If the Committee conducts a fair investigation, it will be a very useful exercise for America. Judging from Senator Lieberman's comments at the press conference today, in which he bluntly concluded that 'governmental failures in preparing for and repsonding to Hurricane Katrina allowed much more human sufering and property destruction to occur than should have, that is the sad and stunning fact,' this is not going to be an inquest, but a penalty phase."

If there are any grounds for hoping the Collins probe will actually accomplish anything useful in advancing public understanding of what happened in the official responses to Hurricane Katrina, it will be the result of two GOP members on the committee, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Coleman has been a tiger in leading the Senate investigation of the UN's Oil for Food scandal. If he brings the same aggressiveness to assessing the actions of all of the major players in the official response to Katrina, from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins and Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to FEMA's Brown, odds are better that we will see some hard-headed facts emerge.

Similarly, Coburn is the one Member of the U.S. Senate who arguably cares less about his political future than about getting to the truth of a matter. He also has the most realistic understanding of the inherent inability of centralized government to be efficient and responsive. Coburn may be to establish himself as the Senate's most knowledgeable advocate of non-government solutions but don't expect Collins or the rest of the GOP squishes on the panel to be helpful to the Oklahoman.

As for the MSM, expect several memes to emerge in short order. There will be the initial adulation of Collins as the hardy, independent from Maine struggling to overcome her more conservative party's neanderthal ways. Unless, of course, she fails to lead the panel towards the expected conclusions.

Then, the MSM will turn on her and portray her either as a hopeless incompetent or as the victim of conspiratorial forces outside the panel such as the more conservative Senate GOP leadership, the Bush White House withholding vital documentation or testimony or the Blogosphere's divisive insistence on assigning blame to individuals rather than processes, or some variation thereof.

Parallel memes will be addressed towards magnifying the efforts of the panel's Democrats. That will be a tough job as the two main partisans are Sen. Mark Dayton, the goofball rich businessman who bought a Minnesota Senate seat, and Sen. Mark Levin, the Michigan Democrat who never met a conservative he couldn't slam. Of the two, Levin will get the more sympathetic treatment.

Look for some other of the Democrats on the panel to emerge as the voice of reason for the MSM, the senator asking the tough questions about the real issues, bravely going after the truth no matter the consequences, etc. etc. I expect to see this role performed by either Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware.

Two memes we won't hear from the MSM - the Katrina response demonstrates the inherently unwieldy, inefficient and inconsistent capacity of a Washington bureaucracy not rigidly controlled by a culture of unquestioned hierarchial authority - i.e. the military - and no matter what is done to "reform" FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security remains a monstrous bureaucracy that will be a net obstacle to effectively responding to future Katrinas and 9/11s.

In short, this panel's deliberations will not be an edifying spectacle, at least not for anybody concerned about actually getting to an understanding of the best way to address natural and man-made disasters.

UPDATE:

Things are moving fairly quickly on this front, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert announce agreement to field a joint investigation of the Katrina response. Hugh Hewitt has the low-down on who and what to watch on the panel.