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House Appropriators to Monitor Katrina Relief

House appropriators could begin oversight hearings as early as this week on the more than $62 billion in federal aid approved for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) announced Thursday that his panel will undertake an extensive oversight program, beginning with subcommittee hearings on funds approved by Congress in the weeks since the Category Five storm struck Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“Congress has properly provided historic levels of assistance for communities devastated by this national tragedy,” Lewis said in a statement. “Now we must fulfill our constitutional obligations to conduct vigorous oversight over these funds.”

While Appropriations Committee members are eager to move forward with oversight hearings — “Our chairmen are chomping at the bit to do hearings,” acknowledged panel spokesman John Scofield — lawmakers are cognizant of the need not to interrupt ongoing relief efforts, Scofield added.

In addition, Lewis announced that he will head a bipartisan delegation on a visit to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in the coming weeks.

Although the details have yet to be finalized, it is likely that a delegation to the hurricane-affected area would include a significant number of Appropriations cardinals and their Democratic counterparts.

Among those Members who could be expected to take part in an initial delegation are Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), Homeland Security subcommittee chairman and ranking member, respectively; Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) and John Olver (D-Mass.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Judiciary, District of Columbia subcommittee; Reps. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.) of the Defense subcommittee; and Reps. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) and Chet Edwards (D-Texas), of the military quality of life and Veterans Affairs and related agencies subcommittee.

It is not expected that the oversight hearings will interfere with the work of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, approved by House lawmakers Thursday.

“We’re going to be tracking where the dollars are going,” Scofield said. “It’s not going to be an investigation into what went wrong.”

Additionally, Lewis announced that the panel’s investigative staff will be deployed to the Gulf Coast area to conduct an audit of the emergency funds.

A time frame for the investigation is still being discussed, but Scofield suggested it likely will last several weeks, and require a budget that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

While the majority of reports prepared by the Surveys and Investigations staff — a group made up of former FBI, CIA and Government Accountability Office personnel, as well as specialized contractors, that often is tasked with reviewing defense- and intelligence-related spending — are not made available to the general public, Lewis said the results will be released in this instance.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the panel’s ranking member, criticized Lewis’ Thursday announcement, however, asserting that the pair has not reached agreement over how the Surveys and Investigation staff should be deployed, calling the statement “simply wrong.”

“The Majority has indicated how it proposes to use the S&I staff, but that proposal does not reflect the Minority’s belief about what subjects should be pursued in that review,” Obey said Friday in a statement.

According to Obey, it is committee practice that the chairmen and ranking members of both the full committee as well as the relevant subcommittees must agree to specific Surveys and Investigation assignments.

Despite his concerns regarding the investigations staff, Obey is supportive of the oversight initiative overall.

“There’s consensus that we need to have the oversight hearings,” said Democratic Appropriations spokeswoman Kirstin Brost. “The rest of the details haven’t been worked out yet.”