When President Barack Obama selected W. Craig Fugate as his nominee for director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it was hard to imagine a better pick for the job. Fugate is a trained paramedic and firefighter who spent 10 years as an emergency manager in Florida's Alachua County. He went on to work for the Florida Division of Emergency Management for more than a decade. He was made the agency's director in 2001 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, and reappointed in 2006 by current Gov. Charlie Crist. Under Fugate's stewardship, Florida responded well to seven landfall hurricanes and three tropical storms in 2004 and 2005 and oversaw $4.5 billion in federal disaster assistance.
When Obama nominated Fugate in March, Jeb Bush said, "Kudos to President Obama for a great choice." U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, praised Fugate for creating "a model emergency management program for the nation." At a multi-state hurricane conference in April, Republican Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Robert Riley of Alabama endorsed Fugate's selection, as did Mark Cooper, director of Louisiana Homeland Security. The fact that Fugate was a Democrat made no difference; it was his accomplishments that mattered. After the disastrous tenure of Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act to ensure future FEMA directors would be qualified — and thoroughly vetted — emergency managers, not political hacks. Fugate fit the bill.
On April 27, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee joined the chorus of praise for Fugate, approving his nomination by a unanimous voice vote. Sen. Mary Landrieu, chair of the Disaster Recovery Subcommittee, expressed her personal support, adding she found it "very encouraging to see President Obama nominating people who have deep experience."
Then, on May 1, Fugate's confirmation came to a halt when one senator blocked his nomination.
That senator? Louisiana's David Vitter.
"I have a hold on the FEMA nomination because I sent a list of hurricane recovery questions and projects to FEMA, many of which have not been adequately addressed," Vitter said in a statement. "I'm eager to get full responses and meet with the nominee immediately."
Vitter's ostensible objection relates to a specific law prohibiting the agency from authorizing new construction in any area demarcated in FEMA flood maps as a high-velocity flood zone, or "V-Zone." The law has put a crimp in the recovery of several coastal parishes, particularly Cameron, which was battered twice in recent years by Hurricanes Rita and Ike. The law raises concerns in coastal Louisiana, which Landrieu voiced during Fugate's confirmation hearing. Fugate said then that he was open to revisiting the issue to ensure "we are pragmatic in our decision-making."
V-Zones aside, Vitter's stonewalling of Obama's choice to head FEMA strikes us as rank obstructionism. Bipartisanship has never been Vitter's strong suit, but he has shown a singular unwillingness to work with the new president. Vitter voted against Obama's attorney general nominee, Eric Holder, and he was one of only two "nay" votes in the 94-2 confirmation of Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Furthermore, his testy relationship with Landrieu is no secret.
Vitter will feign bipartisanship when it suits his political purposes. He publicly called on Landrieu to support the reappointment of Jim Letten as U.S. Attorney — which she already had done, immediately after her re-election last November. He then sent a letter to The Times-Picayune in a thinly veiled attempt both to force Landrieu's hand and position himself to take credit for her decision to support Letten. True to form, when Landrieu announced her support of Letten, a Republican, Vitter immediately issued a press release crowing that "we secured a win today in Senator Landrieu supporting Jim Letten as U.S. Attorney," and adding, "I look forward to returning the bipartisan goodwill." Less than a week later, he blocked Fugate's nomination. So much for Vitter's bipartisanship.
Sen. Vitter needs to stop posturing and do what's right for his constituents, the Gulf Coast and the country. Craig Fugate's record of accomplishment is beyond reproach, and he has support from leaders across the political spectrum. Hurricane season is less than one month away. Louisiana needs a FEMA director in place, and we need one now.