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Close the Turkey Farm

Miller-McCune's experts offer solutions to problems that were under-discussed during the presidential campaign.

In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was combined, with more than 20 other agencies, into the new Department of Homeland Security. The inclusion of FEMA in DHS was controversial, for at least two reasons. First, there was nothing about the Sept. 11 attacks that suggested a need to move FEMA. FEMA's mission was, in the 1990s, to support state and local government in their responses to a range of disasters, and most of these efforts were successful. Second, it was clear before the Department of Homeland Security was formed that President Bush would appoint political allies, not competent disaster management professionals, to lead the agency.

That Bush took this path was remarkable given the history of FEMA, which never really found its footing between its founding in 1979 and the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993. FEMA had gone through periods of obsession with unrealistic nuclear war planning, thereby making it unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. The agency became known as the "Turkey Farm" because of its management by third-rate political appointees.

The FEMA "golden age" came under James Lee Witt, Clinton's FEMA director. Witt led FEMA from pariah to one of the most respected agencies in the government. Its responses to major disasters such as the 1993 Midwest floods and the 1994 Northridge earthquake showed great improvement, as did increased hazard mitigation efforts. But Witt left in 2001, and the Bush administration completely undid FEMA's progress by appointing incompetent administrators and burying the agency inside the DHS. After Hurricane Katrina, the hard lessons of the 1980s were relearned: A professional disaster manager now runs FEMA, as required by the Post-Katrina Reform Act, which has also restored some independence to FEMA. But these reforms do not remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, an agency whose senior leaders have never understood the importance of a professional and trustworthy federal disaster agency.

The way forward for President Obama is therefore simple. First, the president should remove FEMA from Homeland Security. Minimally, he could issue an executive order that indicates that the FEMA director reports directly to the president during disasters. The new FEMA administrator should, like James Lee Witt, be allowed on his or her own initiative to hire professionals with disaster experience to run the agency. FEMA should work closely with DHS, but during emergencies, the FEMA director needs to communicate directly with the president — and needs to be able to invoke the name and powers of the presidency to press for real action for disaster relief and recovery.

More Unsolicited Advice ...

Re-establish Respect for the Constitutional Separation of Powers
Mickey Edwards, Princeton University: Despite repeated assertions by both Barack Obama and John McCain that their policies would differ significantly from those of the previous administration, virtually no attention was paid during the campaign to the worst feature of the Bush presidency: the determined undermining of America's constitutional framework. Read more

Restore Public Faith in Science
Sunshine Menezes, Ph.D., University of Rhode Island: Before the tumbling economy sucked the air out of other issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, there was laudable effort to bring attention to a largely overlooked but critical policy issue: the decline of American science funding and education. Read more

Eliminate the Electoral College
Len Sellers, CEO, Hammer2Anvil: I was at a business dinner in Asia shortly after the 2000 election. Jokes were being made about still not knowing who will be the next U.S. president: "Isn't it typical of Americans to bring in the lawyers?" And so on. Read more

Grant All Americans Their Day in Court
James L. Gibson, Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis: One issue I believe your administration ought to address is that of access to justice by ordinary citizens. As you are no doubt aware by virtue of your legal training, the American legal system has been radically reshaped during the Republican years under so-called tort reform. Read more

Return Balance to the Federal Judiciary
Cornell W. Clayton, Ph.D., Washington State University: You will have the opportunity to nominate many federal judges and no doubt one or more individuals to the U.S. Supreme Court in the next four years. Please restore balance to our federal judiciary. By balance, I do not refer to partisanship or ideology but to life experience and public stature. Read more

P. People O.
Bill Savage, Ph.D., Northwestern University: Piss people off. Piss off the right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida by normalizing relations with Cuba. (If we can work with the commies in Vietnam or China, then we can work with the Cubans.) Piss off the agribusiness industry by ending subsidies for farms not owned and worked by individual families. Read more

Pay More Attention to Our Own Backyard

Douglas Massey, Ph.D., Princeton University: A clear lesson of the last eight years is that the world is now too large and complex to be dominated by a single power. Nations that try to exercise unilateral economic and military power will only undermine their moral and material position in the world and contribute to their own decline. Read more

Find a New Immigration Perspective
James La Valle, Ph.D., Murray State University: Conspicuously absent from both 2008 presidential campaigns was a fair, honest and decisive proposal to solve the immigration problem in the U.S., especially with respect to our southern border. Read more

Make Real Racial Progress
Phillip Atiba Goff, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles: There are few places where the United States is further away from achieving "post-raciality" than in our prisons and courtrooms. ... It is distressing to think that this election's celebration of moral progress could coincide with the largest incarceration of a people in the history of the world, with recent reports estimating that as many as 1 in 9 black males between the ages of 18 and 34 are held in penitentiaries. Read more

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