House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) will proceed Thursday with the first in a series of hearings on governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, despite a decision by House and Senate leaders last week to appoint a bicameral committee responsible for conducting Congress’ sole investigation of the disaster.
In an announcement Friday afternoon, Davis said his panel would begin oversight hearings this week by examining emergency plans in other major cities; a witness list had not been finalized by press time.
Although House and Senate Republican leaders established the Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee on Wednesday with the intention of superceding any other Congressional investigations into the matter — and prevent officials involved with the response efforts from appearing before multiple panels — House aides asserted that the Government Reform hearings do not conflict with the new panel.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) voiced approval for the hearings despite statements the Texas lawmaker made last week condemning individual hearings.
“We feel that these are exactly the type of hearings that Mr. Davis’ committee should be having,” DeLay spokesman Ben Porritt said Friday.
Davis suggested last week that the committee would examine a range of issues such as information sharing between local, state and federal governments, but he renewed his vow Friday that the hearings would not interfere with ongoing recovery efforts.
“It’s critical that we conduct our oversight in a manner that does not interfere with the life-and-death work being done,” Davis said in a statement. “We all agree that many questions need to wait; no one wants to take people away from the massive job at hand. But I also think some issues can and should be looked at now. Our members want to begin doing oversight, and the American people are demanding it as well.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, said Thursday he believed the Government Reform Committee should proceed with its hearings, despite concerns that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and others involved could be called to numerous hearings on Capitol Hill.
Across the Capitol, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold its own oversight hearing Wednesday on the hurricane recovery efforts — with the leaders’ blessing.
Although the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), had planned to conduct a full oversight investigation, the Wednesday hearing is now expected to serve as a foundation for work to be conducted by the joint review committee, which Collins will co-chair.
House GOP leaders have yet to appoint a chairman to the panel, and many of the details, including the ratio of majority and minority seats, had yet to be determined Friday evening.
“The list is being developed, the ratio is being developed, we are moving in real time to get this up an running to move forward,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
Both House and Senate Democratic leaders, however, have sharply criticized the joint committee, asserting the panel needs to comprise an equal number of seats for both parties, as well as subpoena powers for the minority.
In a letter Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who have said they will not appoint their Members to the joint review panel — urged Republican leadership to support instead an independent commission to investigate preparations and subsequent response related to the hurricane.
“We believe that the results we saw over the past two weeks demand a thorough review and investigation,” the letter, addressed to Hastert and Frist, states. “The President, Members of Congress and most importantly, the American people, all agree that we must determine what went wrong and how we can be better prepared in the future. The best way to do that is to appoint an independent commission modeled on the September 11th Commission.”
But Republicans have defended the use of a Congressional committee, citing previous investigative bodies as models, including the panel that investigated the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration.
“I feel very strongly that it is our responsibility as a Congress in a bipartisan way to look at these issues and have oversight of these issues. And in accepting and understanding that responsibility, and not being relieved by somebody else or some other commission of that responsibility, this was one of the best ways we knew to do this,” DeLay said on the House floor Thursday.