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FEMA should be accountable for exposing hurricane survivors to health hazards

OMB Watch "Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice asserted in federal court that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be immune from lawsuits filed in response to the massive formaldehyde contamination that has plagued hurricane recovery housing. FEMA provided this housing to many survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Attorney representing FEMA claimed that the lawsuits amounted to "judicial second-guessing" of the agency's actions in the wake of the Katrina disaster and that only Congress has the authority to examine FEMA's record.

We believe that legal questions of immunity are best left to the courts. However, we also believe there is another issue lurking in the background. Time and time again, the Bush administration has used national emergencies and tragedies to evade the rule of law and avoid responsibility for its actions. The administration did this after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when it misinformed Americans on air quality near Ground Zero and on the dangers posed by asbestos contamination following the collapse of the World Trade Center. It did it again when it suspended the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Its actions were repeated with respect to the National Security Agency's illegal warrantless wiretapping program. Now, the administration is trying to get away with providing shoddy emergency housing to victims of one of the most devastating natural disasters in our nation's history. The one common thread connecting these actions is that the agencies that the Bush White House oversees continually scoff at any attempt to hold them accountable for their missteps, their blunders, and their outright malfeasance.

When Congress starts investigating any executive branch debacle, the administration often claims it doesn't have to comply with subpoenas or send the responsible officials to testify at committee hearings. When agency representatives do appear before Congress, they repeatedly claim that they don't recall important details, that they had no idea that a problem was as severe as it actually is, or that they were acting within the bounds of their authority when, in reality, they were clearly violating the law or the Constitution. When American citizens attempt to achieve justice in court, the reaction is equally as predictable — you can't sue us, we're not accountable to you!

It is clear that FEMA must be held accountable for exposing hurricane survivors to high levels of a cancer-causing toxin. The question is, if Congress can't hold the executive branch to account, and if the American people can't pursue justice in court, just who can ensure that federal agencies will take responsibility for their actions?"

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