Two days after hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I took part in a one-day seminar in Washington that dealt with the role of congressional oversight of the executive branch.
No subject is more timely, and Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – needs to ask the Bush administration some very tough questions about what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi after the hurricane struck.
The seminar was co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and American University and raised some very telling questions about the lack of effective congressional oversight in recent years.
If I were still in Congress, here are the type questions I would want posed to the administration, and I would hope that they would be asked by members of both parties.
1.) Is the new Department of Homeland Security simply an unworkable bureaucracy that is incapable of responding to a major domestic disaster in a timely way?
I was a member of the House Select Committee that created the new DHS. Did we make a mistake by submerging the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) in this massive new department? FEMA seemed to work well as a stand-alone agency. Now, it appears to be frozen.
2.) Have we made a terrible mistake by relying so heavily on the National Guard for our Iraqi commitment? As everyone can now see, the National Guard is essential to maintaining order in times of a domestic crisis. Should we have relied more heavily on the Reserves and active duty forces for Iraq and left the National Guard in place to deal with disasters like Katrina?
3.) Did we make a mistake by not committing active duty forces like the 82nd Airborne immediately to New Orleans once the flooding began? We have used active duty Army units to help with disaster relief in the past and there are units like the 82nd Airborne that are not currently fully committed to Iraq.
4.) One of the issues identified immediately after the 9/11 attack on New York and Washington was the local police and fire departments did not have the right communications equipment to talk to each other in times of an emergency. Once again, we have had a failure of communications equipment. Why hasn’t anything been done in the past four years to remedy this situation nationwide?
Let me emphasize again that these are not partisan questions. They should be asked vigorously by both Democrats and Republicans.
Congress in recent years has abdicated its responsibility to ensure that the Executive Branch is doing its job effectively. There are people who will view any questions posed in the aftermath of Katrina as simply a partisan attack on the Bush administration. That is not the case, and it would be a disservice to our country for anyone to attempt to muzzle Congress at this time because the questions are being posed to a Republican president.
These exact same questions should be asked if the president were a Democrat.
Congressman Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, for years has been urging that Congress be more aggressive in asking these types of questions of the Bush administration.
And let me cite a little history: During World War II, then Sen. Harry S. Truman, D-Mo., headed a special Senate committee that tracked government waste in defense contracting. His work wound up saving our country an estimated $15 billion. He was a Democratic senator in a Democratically controlled Senate asking tough questions to a Democratic president. Republicans and Democrats should ask the same type of tough questions today.
And it should be noted that this aggressive oversight by a little-known senator propelled him into the vice presidency and, ultimately, the presidency. So congressional oversight of a president of your own party doesn’t necessarily have to harm your career. It might even pay long-term benefits.
Congress needs to get off its duff and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.