New Disaster Reform Legislation Pending & Recovery Report re H. Sandy

For those who are interested in the ongoing recovery from H. Sandy, here are three new reports worth reviewing. Once again the Diva would like readers to dig into the two reports mentioned here and do an analysis or review, because she does not have the time presently to read and critique them.

Of special interest to me is the fact that these documents come from a Congressional Committee. It is the first analysis of post-Sandy recovery that I have seen from a congressional office. Also, it is the first time I have seen mention of  FEMA’s National Advisory Council  See: Pending Disaster Reform Legislation and a Recovery Report re H. Sandy

In the second report, there is mention of a major (140 pp.) report from the Army Corps of Engineers in Jan. of this year. A website that provides a full text copy, as well as graphics and an executive summary, go this this cite: North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study. 

NY State Passes Community Risk and Resiliency Act


Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today signed into law the Community Risk and Resiliency Act to strengthen New York State’s preparedness for the effects of climate change and help protect communities against severe weather and sea level rise. The Community Risk and Resiliency Act advances a number of important recommendations of the NYS 2100 Commission, which the Governor convened after Superstorm Sandy to develop more resilient infrastructure systems across the state.

Thanks to Franklin McDonald for the citation.

For full text of the law, go to this site.  For a summary from of the Community Risk and Resiliency Act (CRRA) Provisions, see the NY Department of Environmental Conservation website.

I do not know how significant this legislation is likely to be. Nor do I know if any other states have similar laws.  Be glad to hear from readers on these matters.

Congress – use, disuse, and misuse of information and knowledge

I often write about the problems of a lack of knowledge base re emergency management in the executive branch, and FEMA is usually the primary focus. I found this article fascinating because I do not know much about members of Congress gather and use information.  Rather frightening actually, especially in view of the crucial post-Sandy recovery decisions slated for discussion later this month.

See: Congress’ Wicked Problem; Seeking Knowledge inside the Information Tsunami.New America Foundation, Dec. 2012. Author is Lorelei Kelly. The full paper is 28 pages, which I recommend to those of you serious about this topic.

The lack of shared expert knowledge capacity in the U.S. Congress has created a critical weakness in our democratic process.Along with bipartisan cooperation, many contemporary and urgent questions before our legislators require nuance, genuine deliberation and expert judgment. Congress, however, is missing adequate means for this purpose and depends on outdated and in some cases antiquated systems of information referral, sorting, communicating, and convening.

Congress is held in record low esteem by the public today. Its failings have been widely analyzed and a multitude of root causes have been identified.  This paper does not put forward a simple recipe to fix these ailments, but argues that the absence of basic knowledge management in our legislature is a critical weakness. Congress struggles to make policy on complex issues while it equally lacks the wherewithal to effectively compete on substance in today’s 24 hour news cycle. This paper points out that Congress is not so much venal and corrupt as it is incapacitated and obsolete. And, in its present state, it cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.

It was not always such: less than 20 years ago, Congress operated one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies.  It maintained an extensive network of shared expert staff–individuals and entities that comprised deep pools of both subject matter and legislative process expertise.  Importantly, most of these human resources worked for Congress as a whole and provided symmetrical access and assistance to staff and Members tasked with complex policy decision-making.  Before 1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared.  Joint hearings between committees and between the House and Senate were more common as well. While this former system stands in stark contrast to the one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can rebuild an expert knowledge system for Congress–one with even greater capabilities– by harnessing the technology tools now at hand.

This paper distinguishes between information and knowledge:  Members of Congress and their staff do not lack access to information. Yet information backed by financial interests and high-decibel advocacy is disproportionately represented. Most importantly, they lack the institutional wisdom that can be built via a deliberate system that feeds broadly inclusive information through defined processes of review, context, comparison and evaluation of the implications for the nation as a whole.  Concurrently, Congress also needs more expert judgment available to it during the policymaking process, which, for the purposes of this paper, means a focus on development of knowledge.

Specifically, knowledge asymmetry within Congress creates an uneven playing field and obstructs forward movement on policy.   In the context of this paper, knowledge asymmetry refers to the uneven distribution of trusted quality expertise inside the institution, which hinders the ability of policymakers to see aligned interests and distorts the policy process.  A good example of this is the disparity between subject matter information provided to committees versus personal staff in DC and back home in the state or district. Committees on Capitol Hill receive the lion’s share of expertise.

Two vital legislative processes deserve attention as well.  Authorization and appropriations cycles form the bedrock of Congress’ workplan. A distorting knowledge asymmetry today is the imbalance between them.  Authorization  hearings, for example, are where members engage in discussion, bring ideas to the table and deliberate on policy substance.  Ideally, they examine assumptions, make tradeoffs, set parameters, review subject matter and set policy. Appropriations is the process where members allocate money.  Authorization, in general, has atrophied considerably over the past decades, with far more institutional and outside bandwidth devoted to appropriations.

Fundamentally, this paper looks at asymmetry in two subsets: expert knowledge provision and expert knowledge sharing.

This is not a call to eliminate lobbying.  Petitioning your government is, after all, part of the Constitution. As retired Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) points out, lobbying is part of the normal deliberative process.  He notes that Members of Congress have a responsibility to listen to lobbyists and that they are an important component of the public discussion.   “Our challenge” he says  “is not to shut it down but to make sure it’s a balanced dialogue.”

Ultimately, the political and partisan character of information in our contemporary Congress is not balanced, especially within the ongoing process of policymaking. This current condition contrasts with the broader vision and inclusive capacity of Congress from previous decades, a capacity that provided credible knowledge and bridge building to support the compromises necessary for most policymaking. The issues raised in this paper must be addressed for the policymaking process to get back on track.

Some Lessons Observed Might Become Lessons Applied

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, standing in f...

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Lawmakers Urge Change in Disaster Law; Shreveport times, Oct. 7.

It does appear that some lessons were learned post-Katrina and a new piece of pending Congressional legislation identifies them and would like to institutionalize them.  Some excerpts from the article:

Two Gulf Coast senators say the federal government’s system for helping communities recover from disasters is rife with failures and missed opportunities and badly needs cost-saving reforms. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi introduced a bill recently that would change how the government provides some aid to state and local governments, victims and nonprofit groups after a disaster.

The legislation would amend current law to better track how disaster aid is used, streamline regulations and eliminate incentives to use expensive contractors over local government workers. It also aims to improve contract oversight and the application process for disaster aid.

It also would create a new “catastrophic” category for the most severe disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, and would also press local governments to set up pre-disasterplans and adopt and enforce statewide building codes.

New Report – Urgent Recommendations re Gulf Coast Resilience

States that border the Gulf of Mexico are show...

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Before the Next Katrina: Urgent Recommendations for the President & Congress on Gulf  Coast Resilience; Center for National Policy, August 27. In a compelling new report, authors Steve Flynn and Sean Burke address a few new problems, namely, the likelihood of a major hurricane affecting the same Gulf Coast area impacted by the B.P. Oil Spill and how to clarify, coordinate, and reconcile the two federal response systems that pertain.  The Oil Spill response and now the recovery process are proceeding under the authority of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, but a major hurricane is likely to get a Presidential declaration under the Stafford Act.  The authors do an excellent job identifying problem areas and issues that should be address before another big hurricane reaches the Gulf Coast this season, which could be quite soon. See this C-SPAN interview.