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Katrina Inquiry Fractures Into Three Probes

In a partisan climate, the House, Senate and White House have separate, overlapping investigations into the disaster response.

October 14, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia thought he was offering lawmakers political catnip when he called former FEMA director Michael D. Brown to testify before his committee last month.

The Republican chairman of a special House panel investigating the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina figured the chance to publicly question Brown would prove irresistible to Democrats who refused to serve on his panel, calling his probe a whitewash of the federal government's handling of the disaster.

The partisan chasm that has widened since Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast proved more powerful than the lure of confronting the bureaucrat blamed by many for much of what went wrong with the government's response.

House Democrats maintained their boycott and continued to criticize the investigation as a Republican effort to minimize the federal government's slow reaction. Davis also failed to persuade his Senate counterpart, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, to attend.

Nor does he expect Democrats to relent next week and join his panel's questioning of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The controversy surrounding the committee illustrates how far Congress has strayed from a bipartisan, joint House-Senate inquiry that Republican congressional leaders announced last month into the actions of local, state and federal officials after Hurricane Katrina.

Instead, three separate, overlapping investigations are underway -- the one in the House, one in the Senate and one by the White House.

They are expected to produce three reports about missteps made by government officials -- and offer three sets of recommendations for fixing what went wrong.

And that, said Richard A. Falkenrath, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington, is bad news for the nation.

"The thing that we might lose is an opportunity to get on a better trajectory in terms of preparing this country for catastrophic disasters," said Falkenrath, who served in the Bush administration's Homeland Security Department.

Other congressional observers and outside experts caution that none of the findings may be considered definitive, and could be contradictory.

"We felt strongly and still feel strongly that there should be an independent commission to investigate the poor cooperation and response to Katrina," said Susannah Goodman, senior legislative advocate for the watchdog group Common Cause.

"I think the process is very politicized, and that is extremely unfortunate."

Goodman added: "At the end of the day, what everybody wants is a set of recommendations that will fix the problems, that will tell us how we can be better prepared for the next disaster."

House and Senate members have cooperated before in conducting major inquiries, most recently following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After public pressure, however, an independent commission also was set up to investigate the attacks.

Democrats pushed for a similar independent panel for the Katrina probe.

But the White House and GOP congressional leaders balked at this idea. And in an example of Washington's current political climate, neither side would blink.

In addition to the probe Davis is running, Collins and the ranking Democrat on her committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, are conducting the Senate investigation. Frances Townsend, President Bush's domestic security advisor, is spearheading the White House inquiry.

Each probe is churning out its own requests for documents from the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and other government agencies. House and Senate committees are conducting their own hearings and will sometimes question the same witnesses.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Democrats had no faith that the Davis-led panel would mount an aggressive inquiry into the Bush administration's role in the response to the hurricane, because Republicans refused to give Democrats equal representation on the committee.

"The Republicans in the House refused to make this a bipartisan committee," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who, as the ranking Democrat on Davis' Government Reform Committee, could have played a key role in the inquiry. "With Republicans running the show, I don't think to this point the investigation has a lot of credibility."

A handful of Democratic lawmakers from the Gulf Coast has sat in informally during the committee's hearings. Republicans have criticized the House Democratic leadership for refusing to officially name members to the panel.

"The American people want to see Congress work together," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "When the Democrats choose not to join a committee that has been set up based on democratic majority traditions, it is disappointing and bothersome. They are only hurting themselves."

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