President Barack Obama's pick to head FEMA promised senators Wednesday that he would hold the disaster relief agency to a much higher standard than it displayed in the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Craig Fugate and John Morton — Obama's choice to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement — cruised through their Senate hearings Wednesday and appeared on a fast track for confirmation.
FEMA was widely criticized for its botched response to Katrina when the federal government showed up late and unprepared. Since then, the question has been: Is the FEMA response better than it was in 2005? The answer has been yes, though no disaster has been nearly as catastrophic as Katrina.
"Although the media may use the failures of Katrina and Rita as a standard of measurement for judging the effectiveness of government, this standard does not, in my opinion, meet our sworn commitment to the American people," Fugate said in written testimony.
Fugate previously served as head of emergency management in Florida where he worked for two Republican governors. In that position, he oversaw a staff of 138. If confirmed to head FEMA, he would oversee more than 3,500 employees.
Praise for the nominee
Fugate has been praised for helping guide Florida through several devastating hurricanes in the past decade. He was criticized in 2005 for not distributing enough ice, water and other supplies immediately after Hurricane Wilma. Fugate had warned residents before the storm that they should have enough supplies for three days after it passed, but many did not, and that overstressed the system.
During questioning by senators, Morton said one of his top priorities would be immigrant detention policies and improving how they are treated while in U.S. custody.
"The power of detention is a very important power," Morton said. But he said the agency needs to "take a hard look" at whether the people who are being detained have committed crimes or pose a flight risk.
Morton is currently a senior official at the Justice Department. Throughout his career he has worked on immigration enforcement cases, both as a trial attorney at the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service and as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Echoing what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been saying, Morton said going after the employers who hire illegal workers would be the agency's focus under his leadership. He said he is concerned that during the Bush administration there was "an imbalance" between the number of employers prosecuted and the number of workers prosecuted. In 2008, the agency brought criminal charges against 135 employers and 968 workers.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, said he hoped the nominees would be confirmed as early as next week. Lieberman is a Connecticut independent who organized with Senate Democrats.