There’s one thing that can definitely be said about George W. Bush. He rewards loyalty. Right or wrong, and whether the results are disastrous or merely unfortunate, he consistently rewards people who have stood by the policies and ideology of his administration and/or party, devil take the hindmost. It’s a brand of conservatism in which
We saw it when he stood by Donald Rumsfeld, despite the debacle that Iraq has become. We saw it when he handed medals to the architects of the Iraq war, instead of pink slips. We saw when it he stood by Karl Rove, despite the likelihood that Rove outed a CIA operative for political revenge. And we’re seeing it again in the destruction and aftermath of hurricane Katrina. All those times before, folks were inclined to ask why all those people still had their jobs? Now they’re asking why FEMA chief Michael Brown still has his job. And how did he get it in the first place?
Brown’s background includes working as an estate planning attorney, an assistant city manager, and attorney for the International Arabian Horse Association Legal Dept., and was forced to resign from that position — called a " an unmitigated, total fucking disaster," by someone connected with the organization.
Nothing in Brown’s career should have brought him any closer to the head of FEMA than watching disaster reports on television as the rest of us have been doing for the past week. Nothing in his political background should have bought him the position either, considering that his financial contributions to the 2000 Bush campaign only amounted to about $1,000. What brought Brown into the Bush administration was his connection to Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s 2000 campaign manager and former gubernatorial chief of staff — and Brown’s former college roommate — who was director of FEMA when he brought Brown into the agency as general counsel in 2001.
With Allbaugh at the agency’s helm, the Bush administration had no trouble starting the process of privatizing many of FEMA’s functions. Allbaugh’s explanation to Congress of the "need" to privatize FEMA’s work sounds nearly ironic in the context of Katrina’s aftermath.
“Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”
Both the statement and the speaker suggest a particularly Texas-flavored brand of cronyism — in which job security for politicians and business funding of institutions of social conservatism trumps policy in the interest of the people.
It was also on Allbaugh’s watch that FEMA predicted a massive hurricane would his New Orleans in the near future. Privatization marched on, and Allbaugh left the administration 2002 in order to found a consulting firm to help corporations seeking to do business in Iraq — including Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, which immediately became one of Allbaugh’s clients upon his resignation, and just got a contract (no mention of bidding) to repair naval facilities damaged by hurricane Katrina. Beneath the surface of official reasons for his resignation were reports of Allbaugh’s involvement in a scandal — dubbed "Funeralgate" — involving desecrated corpses, a Bush family patron with a business in funeral homes, a fired whistleblower, an inevitable lawsuit, accusations that Allbaugh and Bush lied under oath, and some interesting post-2000 moves by FEMA to make the scandal go away.
While his roots in the Bush administration’s crony network weren’t as deep as his predecessor’s, Michael Brown carried the administration’s water about as effectively as Allbaugh. On his watch, the agency was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In June 2004, FEMA privatized it’s disaster preparedness plan for New Orleans, farming it out to a company called Innovative Emergency Management (IEM). The company’s website contains no information about a disaster plan for New Orleans, beyond a press release that was yanked and later restored when a sharp-eyed blogger caught on. It also bears a statement concerning the devastation in Katrina’s wake.
IEM feels deeply the loss to human life from Hurricane Katrina. We are currently mobilizing teams to support disaster response. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the storm.
Beyond that, there’s little sign of just what IEM was paid for, or how much it did in the way of preparing New Orleans for the impending disaster FEMA said was coming as far back as 2001.
So, stewardship of the agency responsible for preparations that could save lives in the event of natural disaster was handed off from crony to crony, from political hack to political hack, while the inevitable storm headed for our Gulf Coast. Beyond that, we all know the story. We’ve watched it unfold for days. But Kevin Drum probably summed it up best.
So: A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration’s conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA’s preparation and planning functions were taken away.
Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It’s the Bush administration in a nutshell.
It’s said now that Brown just didn’t do his job, and neither did his agency. But that depends on how you look at it. Presiding over the privatization of his agency and the decimation of its services may just have been Brown’s job, as it was Allbaugh’s before him. It’s a question of loyalty, and whether their allegiance was to the people FEMA was created to serve, or people who put them in positions of power.
If FEMA’s performance, and that of the rest of the government is any indication, we have our answer loud and clear. Grover Norquist’s famous quote notwitstanding, it wasn’t the government that got drowned this time. It was the people government was supposed to protect — those least able to protect themselves.