Sinking the unsinkable.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 10 2005 7:25 AM

Hack of a Job

The president learns that a good hack is hard to find.

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Hack & Sack: Across America, communities have bravely fought through federal red tape to help find new homes for the victims of Katrina. After its miserable performance under political appointees like FEMA Director Michael Brown, the Bush administration faces another dilemma: Where to relocate all the hacks?

Belatedly, the president took the first step Friday by relieving Brown of his duties and returning him to Washington. According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown will remain as head of FEMA to "manage other disasters"—for example, his career.

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In 10 days, Brown went from being another faceless federal bureaucrat to needing the federal witness protection program. More Americans have called for his resignation than ever heard of his able predecessor James Lee Witt. If Bush had stood by his man at FEMA any longer, he would have had to change his nickname from "Brownie" to "The Unsinkable Michael Brown."

But as the Washington Post explains today, Brown isn't the only hack at his agency; FEMA is now home to an entire troop of Brownies. Brown's chief of staff was an advance man for the 2000 campaign. The deputy chief of staff was an advance man for the White House. His predecessor at FEMA had been a Bush campaign consultant in 2000. It's as if they all responded to the same classified, "Must Lack Relevant Experience."

Fire When Ready: Brown wasn't actually fired—that would require the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to admit error. "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could," Chertoff said. "I want to make sure FEMA continues to be run the way it needs to be." In other words, we have only just begun to fail.

Brown's tragicomic survival parallels the long-running tragic folly of the Department of Homeland Security, Washington's response to the last great national disaster. Bush initially opposed the idea for the wrong reason—in order to protect bureaucratic fiefdoms like the FBI—then changed his mind so he could exploit it for the wrong purpose: pounding Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections.

Cynicism is its own reward. Bush's support for the Department of Homeland Security enabled Republicans to win back the Senate in 2002. If Bush can't find a way out of his Katrina tailspin, the performance of DHS and its FEMA stepchild could cost Republicans the House in 2006.

Ironically, Bush made homeland security a campaign issue in 2002 by turning Democrats against their own bill because he insisted on civil service reforms to make it easier for the agency to fire incompetent workers. Bush forgot to mention his plan to hire incompetent bosses.

Brown & Root: At first glance, Michael Brown would seem to be an even more preventable disaster than the breaching of the New Orleans levees. But protecting the nation from the next Michael Brown is not as easy as it looks. In fact, America has been wrestling with this conundrum since its inception.

The nub of the problem is this: In a democracy, a responsive government must do what the public and their leaders want, not just what the government wants. The last two centuries have been one long experiment in what mix of permanent civil servants and temporary political appointees can best achieve that ideal.