Senators to President Bush: Help Us Reform and Strengthen Disaster Preparedness

In a letter to President Bush, a bipartisan group of United States Senators today said the President’s “signing statement” accompanying a key Homeland Security bill disregards “provisions in the bill intended to protect against further mistakes such as those that plagued the 2005 hurricane response.” The letter was signed by Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and by the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, H.R. 5441, passed the Senate by a 100-to-0 vote and requires that nominees to be Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have at least five years of executive experience and possess “a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management.” The bill also allows the FEMA Administrator to advise Congress on the nation’s disaster preparedness and emergency management needs, even when that counsel may be contrary to stated administration policy.

“The bottom line is that we need FEMA leadership that meets high standards,” the Senators wrote. “Disregarding provisions of the Act that are intended to strengthen those standards is a move in the wrong direction.”

But hours after signing the bill into law, the President issued a “signing statement” in which he expressed intent to disregard those two provisions, arguing that they violated his authority – even though significant legal precedent exists for each. The Congressional Research Service reports that President Bush has used these broad “signing statements” to challenge more than 700 distinct provisions of law since taking office in 2001.

“[We] have concerns about your broad use of signing statements to raise questions about the executive’s intention to comply with legislation passed by both houses of Congress,” the Senators wrote. “We urge you to reconsider your position and join us in calling for strong standards and the highest professional qualifications for the leadership of FEMA and for open dialogue between the executive and legislative branches on issues of such significant importance to our nation’s safety and security.”

A full copy of the letter is available here.