The lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina revealed to everyone that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which earned universal praise during the Clinton years, is a shell of its former self. The hapless Michael Brown - who is no longer overseeing relief efforts but still heads the agency - has become a symbol of cronyism. But what we really should be asking is whether FEMA's decline and fall is unique, or part of a larger pattern. What other government functions have been crippled by politicization, cronyism and/or the departure of experienced professionals? How many FEMA's are there? Unfortunately, it's easy to find other agencies suffering from some version of the FEMA syndrome. The first example won't surprise you: the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a key role to play in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, but which has seen a major exodus of experienced officials over the past few years. In particular, senior officials have left in protest over what they say is the Bush administration's unwillingness to enforce environmental law.
Yesterday The Independent, the British newspaper, published an interview about the environmental aftermath of Katrina with Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst in the agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, whom one suspects is planning to join the exodus. "The budget has been cut," he said, "and inept political hacks have been put in key positions." That sounds familiar, and given what we've learned over the last two weeks there's no reason to doubt that characterization - or to disregard his warning of an environmental cover-up in progress. What about the Food and Drug Administration? Serious questions have been raised about the agency's coziness with drug companies, and the agency's top official in charge of women's health issues resigned over the delay in approving Plan B, the morning-after pill, accusing the agency's head of overruling the professional staff on political grounds. Then there's the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose Republican chairman hired a consultant to identify liberal bias in its programs. The consultant apparently considered any criticism of the administration a sign of liberalism, even if it came from conservatives.
You could say that these are all cases in which the Bush administration hasn't worried about degrading the quality of a government agency because it doesn't really believe in the agency's mission. But you can't say that about my [next] two examples....