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Congress and Katrina

Democrats are expressing delight with a Washington Post/ABC poll showing that 76 percent of Americans favor creating an independent commission to investigate the emergency response system’s handing of Hurricane Katrina. In reality, though, no Member of Congress should be cheered about it.

That’s because of the apparent reason — that 70 percent of respondents said they believe a Congressional inquiry will “get bogged down in partisan politics.” The finding bespeaks profound doubt that this institution is capable of performing one of its fundamental missions: overseeing the operations of government.

Indeed, Congress’ immediate response to Katrina was a partisan brawl, with Democrats hardly waiting until the storm had passed before placing full blame for the breakdown of services on the Bush administration, followed by Republican leaders deciding, without consultation with Democrats, to create a joint House-Senate panel to investigate.

Democrats, in turn, demanded creation of an independent, Sept. 11, 2001-style bipartisan commission and announced that they would refuse to participate in the bicameral inquiry, even though Republicans said it was modeled on the 1987 joint panel that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal.

We take no position on whether an independent commission is the best format for an inquiry, but we’re convinced that Congress must fulfill its responsibility to find out what went wrong with the Katrina response and what needs to be done to assure, four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that the United States can handle a large-scale disaster, whether natural or man-made. And we urge Members of both parties to act as Americans, protecting the hides of neither federal officials nor local authorities.

The good news is that two Congressional committees with oversight responsibilities — the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Government Reform Committee — are proceeding with hearings and Democrats intend to participate fully. One rationale that Republicans gave for the creation of a bicameral committee was to avoid duplication of effort and the necessity for officials busy with Katrina cleanup and recovery to endlessly testify before multiple committees. We don’t see why panels headed by fair-minded Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), and cooperative ranking Members, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.), can’t meet jointly.

Regardless of how Congress handles its inquiry (or inquiries, if necessary), the institution must clearly move ahead and not wait for outsiders to find out what went wrong and fix it. Even if a 9/11-style commission were created, Congress would have to hold hearings to process its findings. And, when Congress looks for errors that allowed Katrina to turn into a debacle, it ought to look at itself, too. After all, it was Congress that created many of the mechanisms that failed.

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