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By Wes Allison May 19, 2009

Obama appoints a seasoned pro but doesn't change status of job

With the swearing-in of Craig Fugate (he was confirmed May 12, 2009), President Barack Obama fulfilled one of the promises he made regarding the Federal Emergency Management Agency: He has clearly put a seasoned emergency management professional in charge of the agency.

Fugate boasts 25 years experience in emergency management, including chief of Florida's emergency management department under Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, and he is widely considered one of the nation's foremost experts in disaster response.

But set aside, for a moment, questions about why Obama felt compelled to put a pro in charge of FEMA in the first place (hint: it has to do with someone nicknamed Brownie). In a February 2008 campaign speech in New Orleans, Obama also promised to protect his FEMA chief from politics by giving him a set six-year term and by having him report directly to the president. But it now appears the Obama administration is not pursuing those elements of his FEMA promise.
In Fugate's inagural appearance as director of FEMA Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in response to questions that she's heard no talk of any six-year term, and that Fugate will report directly to her, not Obama.

Although some members of Congress want to pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and make it a free-standing agency, as it was under President Bill Clinton, Napolitano said she supports keeping FEMA within her department. She said there's nothing to prevent Obama from dealing directly with Fugate, particularly at times of major disasters, but the day-to-day administration, such as budgeting, will go through her.

"I haven't heard of the term issue," Napolitano said. "But with respect to reporting ... the president will feel free to reach out and talk directly with him ... and also with myself as the secretary. There's nothing about FEMA ... that precludes direct interaction with the administrator."

So he's fulfilled his promise to appoint someone with "professional emergency management experience" but has broken the part about the six-year term and reporting directly to the president. That sounds like a Compromise to us.

Our Sources

News conference with Janet Napolitano, May 19, 2009

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan March 31, 2009

Obama nominates Fugate but hedges on other FEMA changes

The federal response to Hurricane Katrina prompted lots of criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the way the Bush administration treated the agency. It had been an independent agency under President Bill Clinton, but President George W. Bush put it under the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks, which was seen as something of a demotion. Bush was also criticized for putting political cronies in charge of FEMA rather than people with experience in emergency management.

During the campaign, Barack Obama said he would "depoliticize" the job, appointing someone with experience in the field and giving the FEMA chief a six-year term.

On March 4, Obama nominated Craig Fugate, who had been director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and has spent his career in emergency management. We reviewed reactions to Fugate's appointment and found praise for his competency from both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, Fugate had first been appointed to head the Florida position by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

The U.S. Senate still must approve Fugate's confirmation, but no hearing has been scheduled.

Additionally, it's unclear if Obama intends to keep his pledge about changing the organizational structure so that the FEMA director reports directly to the president instead of to the Department of Homeland Security, or whether Fugate will serve a fixed term.

In an interview with regional newspapers on March 11, Obama was asked about FEMA moving out of the Department of Homeland Security.

"I have not made a final decision on that," Obama said. "But whether FEMA stays inside DHS, or is once again a stand-alone agency, the one thing you can be certain of is that it's going to do an outstanding job performing its tasks."

We will be watching to see if Fugate is confirmed and if the structure of FEMA changes. For now, we rate this promise In the Works.

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