The lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina revealed to everyone that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which earned universal praise during the Clinton years, is a shell of its former self. The hapless Michael Brown - who is no longer overseeing relief efforts but still heads the agency - has become a symbol of cronyism.
But what we really should be asking is whether FEMA's decline and fall is unique, or part of a larger pattern. What other government functions have been crippled by politicization, cronyism and/or the departure of experienced professionals? How many FEMA's are there?
Unfortunately, it's easy to find other agencies suffering from some version of the FEMA syndrome.
The first example won't surprise you: the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a key role to play in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, but which has seen a major exodus of experienced officials over the past few years. In particular, senior officials have left in protest over what they say is the Bush administration's unwillingness to enforce environmental law.
Yesterday The Independent, the British newspaper, published an interview about the environmental aftermath of Katrina with Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst in the agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, whom one suspects is planning to join the exodus. "The budget has been cut," he said, "and inept political hacks have been put in key positions." That sounds familiar, and given what we've learned over the last two weeks there's no reason to doubt that characterization - or to disregard his warning of an environmental cover-up in progress.
What about the Food and Drug Administration? Serious questions have been raised about the agency's coziness with drug companies, and the agency's top official in charge of women's health issues resigned over the delay in approving Plan B, the morning-after pill, accusing the agency's head of overruling the professional staff on political grounds.
Then there's the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose Republican chairman hired a consultant to identify liberal bias in its programs. The consultant apparently considered any criticism of the administration a sign of liberalism, even if it came from conservatives.
You could say that these are all cases in which the Bush administration hasn't worried about degrading the quality of a government agency because it doesn't really believe in the agency's mission. But you can't say that about my other two examples.
Even a conservative government needs an effective Treasury Department. Yet Treasury, which had high prestige and morale during the Clinton years, has fallen from grace.
The public symbol of that fall is the fact that John Snow, who was obviously picked for his loyalty rather than his qualifications, is still Treasury secretary. Less obvious to the public is the hollowing out of the department's expertise. Many experienced staff members have left since 2000, and a number of key positions are either empty or filled only on an acting basis. "There is no policy," an economist who was leaving the department after 22 years told The Washington Post, back in 2002. "If there are no pipes, why do you need a plumber?" So the best and brightest have been leaving.
And finally, what about the department of Homeland Security itself? FEMA was neglected, some people say, because it was folded into a large agency that was focused on terrorist threats, not natural disasters. But what, exactly, is the department doing to protect us from terrorists?
In 2004 Reuters reported a "steady exodus" of counterterrorism officials, who believed that the war in Iraq had taken precedence over the real terrorist threat. Why, then, should we believe that Homeland Security is being well run?
Let's not forget that the administration's first choice to head the department was Bernard Kerik, a crony of Rudy Giuliani. And Mr. Kerik's nomination would have gone through if enterprising reporters hadn't turned up problems in his background that the F.B.I. somehow missed, just as it somehow didn't turn up the little problems in Michael Brown's résumé. How many lesser Keriks made it into other positions?
The point is that Katrina should serve as a wakeup call, not just about FEMA, but about the executive branch as a whole. Everything I know suggests that it's in a sorry state - that an administration which doesn't treat governing seriously has created two, three, many FEMA's.
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.12.05