Md. lawmakers take strong stances

Mikulski laments FEMA's loss of focus

Cummings assails sluggish response

Katrina's Wake

September 10, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Like nearly everyone in America, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings couldn't tear himself away from the television images coming out of New Orleans during the past week.

The plight of two people he watched from hundreds of miles away are burned into his brain: a man who was forced to choose between hanging on to his children and keeping a hold on his wife; and an elderly woman lying on a gurney on the floor of the city's airport.

Like many other people, Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, couldn't believe his eyes. Unlike many others, he was in a position to do something about what he saw.

Late last week, Cummings and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a news conference to decry the sluggish federal response. Cummings quoted the Book of Matthew and said, "God cannot be pleased with our response."

Within an hour, he said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone. The next day, Cummings and other members of the caucus were invited to the White House for a meeting with domestic policy advisers. An issue that had been simmering for several days was being confronted by the president's staff.

Cummings said he was motivated by a simple sense of horror at what was happening.

"I guess it was the constant cries for help and hearing people say, `Where's our government? Did they leave us? Did they forget us?"' he said. "I just said to myself, `Wait a minute, this is the United States. This is a great country."'

Other Maryland lawmakers have focused on other aspects of the disaster.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget, has been one of the strongest advocates of restoring the agency to its former Cabinet-level status. The appropriations system was reorganized this year, but she still sits on the committee that makes funding decisions for FEMA.

Mikulski said yesterday that the FEMA she worked to reform in response to Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, no longer exists.

FEMA "seemed to lose its focus" over the past few years, Mikulski said, as the professional emergency managers gave way to bosses without experience in handling disasters.

"This is exactly what we changed" after Andrew, Mikulski said. "That's why I'm so frustrated. It didn't have to be like this."

Mikulski was one of the first lawmakers to publicly call for the resignation or firing of Michael Brown, the FEMA director. With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, Mikulski introduced legislation that would make FEMA an independent agency again and require its top officials to be professional emergency managers.

Clinton and Mikulski are also sponsoring a bill that would create an independent commission to review the government's response to Katrina. The Bush administration and House and Senate Republicans have rejected that idea, pushing for a joint congressional committee to conduct the investigaton.

Other Maryland Democrats, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, have called for an independent commission to look at the problems exposed by Katrina and possible solutions.

"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, I don't care, there are some things you can't do as a partisan," said Cardin, who represents part of Baltimore and its suburbs and is running for the Senate next year.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes focused on the need for housing for victims, a key issue with tens of thousands of people displaced, perhaps for months, by the storm. He offered an amendment to an unrelated bill that was considered by the Senate late in the week, but its prospects were limited by Republican opposition to attaching anything hurricane-related to the legislation.

For Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, the issue is whether the enormous federal expenditure on the recovery and cleanup effort will open the door to waste, fraud and pork-barrel spending.

On Thursday, he joined the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste and a group of fiscally conservative Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, to urge his colleagues to resist the temptation to tuck hometown projects into emergency spending bills.

"We in the Congress need to make sure that that money is responsibly spent," Bartlett said.

Cummings, who said neighbors, black and white, have thanked him for speaking out about the plight of Katrina's victims, said he did not intend his comments to be about race, but rather about poverty. It is nearly impossible to separate the two, he said.

He plans to go to Memphis on Monday to meet with religious leaders from around the country on ways faith-based groups can help with the recovery.

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