Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Should Bush have ousted Governor Blanco?

Jerry Stratton, September 18, 2005

The news we’ve been seeing coming out of New Orleans has been very critical of the President’s “choice” not to intervene in Louisiana using the military forces at his disposal. But this hasn’t really been his choice. It is the way our government and our emergency response plans are set up: responses come from local authorities first, who then (if necessary) request federal assistance or assistance from nearby states.

I’ll be saying a lot of things about Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco here that are gleaned solely from an increasingly untrustworthy media. Many of the major news sources seem to make Nagin and Blanco look extremely incompetent even as these sources try to blame the federal government for a slow response. So, if I am misrepresenting anyone’s actual actions, I apologize. My point is to discuss the implications of calling for an easy means for a president to override a governor’s power in their own state. Those calls are themselves a result of the mainstream news media’s representation of Katrina’s aftermath and the responses to it in New Orleans, regardless of the truthfulness of those representations.

I’m not accusing the news media of being partisan, only biased; and their main bias is in favor of controversy. If they’re going to mention the speed of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, they can’t say that it went right on schedule. That’s not news. They either have to say it came too quickly, or it came too slowly. And if you think it would be utterly silly to claim that the federal government responded too quickly, go back and read some of the stories about the federal response to Hurricane Charley in Florida, articles with titles such as How FEMA delivered Florida for Bush and Relief trip to Florida shows power of incumbency.

Some of that criticism continues today, with some writers now calling Charley “negligible”. However, if there are any differences between Charley and Katrina, it would probably be this, from the St. Petersburg Times:

Gov. Jeb Bush sought federal help Friday while Charley was still in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush approved the aid about an hour after the hurricane made landfall. By Monday afternoon, the cavalry seemed to be in place.

“You need to have a quick response in beginning,” Gov. Bush said Monday.

The implications and sometimes outright statements from the mainstream press and even much of the otherwise anti-Bush blogosphere are that the president should have exercised more authority in another state’s affairs without approval from that state’s governor. The federal government, not surprisingly and while trying to deflect criticism in this particular case, is very receptive to having that power. In Political Issues Snarled Plans for Troop Aid, the New York Times reports that:

As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor.

For reasons of practicality and politics, officials at the Justice Department and the Pentagon, and then at the White House, decided not to urge Mr. Bush to take command of the effort. Instead, the Washington officials decided to rely on the growing number of National Guard personnel flowing into Louisiana, who were under Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's control.

The debate began after officials realized that Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the national disaster response plans created after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated.

To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president in times of unrest to command active-duty forces into the states to perform law enforcement duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control, as Bush administration officials believe would have been required to deploy active-duty combat forces before law and order had been re-established.

In the face of criticism that they did not seize control quickly enough in Louisiana, the administration is responding with what sound like reasonable proposals: recognizing that sometimes a major emergency will result in the incapacitation of first responders, in this case, the local police and the state National Guard. That it may become necessary, as their detractors are basically saying should have been done here, for the president to take control from local officials when the officials have been “incapacitated”.

But let’s take a closer look at New Orleans and Louisiana. Were the local authorities incapacitated before the hurricane hit? Is that why they did not follow their plan to use school busses, gassed up and ready to go, to evacuate those who could not evacuate themselves? No. Were the local police incapacitated by the hurricane? Not as far as I can tell. Their leadership may have made poor choices, but the New Orleans police do not seem to be incapacitated.

Were the governor’s 6,500 National Guard troops incapacitated when they should have been helping with the mandatory evacuation the governor ordered? No. Were they incapacitated after the hurricane? Again, not as far as I can tell from the reports of people in the area.

The problems that do occur all seem to stem from expecting more than the federal government should do and could do. According to the New York Times, in Ex-FEMA chief tells of frustration and chaos:

Governor Blanco’s communications director, Mr. Mann, said that she was frustrated that Mr. Brown and others at FEMA wanted itemized requests before acting. “It was like walking into an emergency room bleeding profusely and being expected to instruct the doctors how to treat you,” he said.

The problem with that analogy is that Blanco was the surgeon. She was the one in control, she refused to give it up, but she also refused to say what she needed when someone else came in to assist. Of course FEMA is going to need a list of requests from the local authorities. FEMA doesn’t have resources of its own. It manages requests between agencies that do have resources. The local authorities are supposed to be the ones who know what is needed. They are the first responders; they go in, find out what is needed, do what they can, and request what they can’t.

The first responders in this case were not incapacitated by the emergency. The only sense in which they were incapacitated is by incompetent local leadership. The mayor never ensured that those hundreds of school busses would evacuate those without the resources or ability to leave on their own. The governor didn’t order the National Guard to do so until three days after the hurricane hit. The mayor eventually said that he would abdicate his authority, but the governor refused to do so.

As is fortunately still the case, the military is resisting the use of its forces in domestic operations:

Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, has suggested that active-duty troops be trained and equipped to intervene if front-line emergency personnel are stricken. But the Pentagon's leadership remains unconvinced that this plan is sound, suggesting instead that the national emergency response plans be revised to draw reinforcements initially from civilian police, firefighters, medical personnel and hazardous-waste experts in other states not affected by a disaster.

What the administration is now suggesting, and what their detractors have been asking for, is that the president be given a general authority to oust democratically elected governors because the president thinks that they are incompetent to handle affairs in their own state. That’s the bottom line. Neither Nagin nor Blanco were incapacitated. They just weren’t acting as competently as we would have liked. Do we really want President Bush to have had the power to take over their state because of this?

Imagine if President Bush had had such authority and had used it when it could have saved the most lives: the few days before the hurricane when he was asking Louisiana officials to declare a mandatory evacuation and follow their own plans. The outcry against Bush would have been incredible, and rightfully so. We can’t change our minds afterwards because the local authorities haven’t been as competent as they should be.

President Bush can fire (or “re-assign”) Michael Brown. Michael Brown is a federal employee. But Bush has no such authority over a governor unless that governor is in armed rebellion against the United States. A hurricane is not an insurrection and we can’t start pretending that it is. That is a very slippery slope towards military rule.

In President Bush’s Hurricane Relief Address, the president said that he is serious about these reforms: that the military should become the first responder in situations where the governor is “overwhelmed”.

It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces--the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment’s notice.... We’re going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people.

I can’t see that it would have been right for the president--any president--to wrest control of Louisiana from the governor before Hurricane Katrina hit, when it would have done the most good; nor would it have been right to take control from her after the storm hit, again, against her wishes, even though it would have done some short-term good then also.

I can understand that some people will disagree with that, but I wish they would be honest about what it is they’re calling for, and be more clear about when they think the president should have taken control of Louisiana from its governor, and how often and how easily they would like a president to be able to intervene militarily in a state.

I don’t think the rule should be “the governor isn’t doing what I think they should be doing.”

This is important, because such a power will not just be used in the aftermath of a hurricane. It will also be used in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. It will not only be used before a hurricane, to prevent deaths, it will also be used in response to fears of terrorist attacks. When considering what powers the president should have in the face of emergencies, consider that one person’s emergency is another person’s opportunity.

The more we open the possibility of federal military intervention, the more such interventions will occur.

September 29, 2005: “I didn’t know the gun was loaded!”

Do I get to say I told you so? In Federalizing New Orleans, I wrote:

The implications and sometimes outright statements from the mainstream press and even much of the otherwise anti-Bush blogosphere are that the president should have exercised more authority in another state’s affairs without approval from that state’s governor. The federal government, not surprisingly and while trying to deflect criticism in this particular case, is very receptive to having that power.

In response to criticism that the federal government didn’t act quickly enough to take over New Orleans from a governor who didn’t want to relinquish authority, Bush floated granting “greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces” in response to “incapacitated” local forces, where “incapacitated” was the code word the press was using for what it saw at the time as “incompetent”.

This week, the president has taken that suggestion one step further. Bill Sammon in the Washington Times reports that:

President Bush said he wants Congress to consider putting the Pentagon, not state and local agencies, in charge of responding to large natural disasters in the future.

“Is there a circumstance in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency?” Mr. Bush asked members of a military task force participating in Hurricane Rita relief efforts in Texas.

“Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?” he added. “That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about.”

In Take Back the Name, I wrote that “Governments are slow in all but one thing: they are quick to learn when their citizens are no longer liberals.” When we criticize the federal government for not exercising enough authority, such criticisms will not be ignored. That gun is always loaded.

We don’t know how far he’s going to push this, but it mirrors the expanded role for the military following September 11. In one sense, I think it’s good that he’s calling for a discussion rather than an immediate change in the law. If he had wanted to ram it through the Republican-controlled congress while public concern was still high, he probably could have. Different presidents might have been more opportunistic than floating suggestions for what congress ought to discuss.

But if we end up with a Roman-style transition to dictatorship in this country, it will be because of this unreasoning hatred, fanned by the press, that causes partisans to criticize any action taken by their political enemies even when those actions are right, judicious, and respectful of our country’s republican tradition.

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