WASHINGTON – Democrat and Republican members of Congress, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, criticized President Bush Friday for saying he won’t comply with a homeland security law requirement that he appoint a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency with emergency management ability and “no less than five years of executive leadership.”

The requirement, part of a spending bill the president signed into law on Wednesday, was in direct response to the federal government’s ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina. That response was initially overseen by FEMA director Michael Brown, who had only limited experience in emergency management prior to coming to the agency in 2001, initially as the agency’s attorney before being named by Bush as its No. 1 official in 2003.

In his signing statement, Bush said that he also won’t comply with a provision in the homeland security spending bill that authorizes the FEMA director to inform Congress about the nation’s emergency management needs without first getting permission from the president. The president has used signing statements much more than any of his predecessors to signal his intention to ignore provisions of laws he considers unconstitutional, or an assault on executive privileges.

Collins, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Congress only acted after investigations found serious shortcomings at the top management levels of FEMA.

“This is not unprecedented,” Collins said. “Congress has established qualifications for numerous executive positions, such as the solicitor general and the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Bush said that the establishment of minimal standards for the director of FEMA could rule out a “large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge.”

The president, he added, has the constitutional authority to supervise the executive branch and accordingly recommendations to Congress should be subject to “appropriate executive branch review and approval before submission.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was working Friday on getting Senate colleagues to send a letter to the White House next week protesting the president’s signing statement.

“Under the fig leaf of “constitutional precedent,’ the statement rejects Congress’ call that future FEMA directors come to the job with a bare minimum of basic experience to qualify them for the position,” Landrieu said. “And despite having seen several investigations into FEMA’s failed response be hampered by constraints on the agency’s cooperation, the statement also now rejects Congress’ right to receive unfettered counsel from the FEMA director on the emergency response needs of the nation.”

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he doesn’t see how the White House can argue that it is improper for Congress to set minimal standards for a position as important as director of FEMA.

“I really think the president should reign in his lawyers and their very frequent issuance of these signing statements,” Vitter said. “The statements have absolutely no legal authority. If Congress passes something that’s unconstitutional, it’s invalid whether the president has issued such a statement or not.”

Brown, who became FEMA administrator in 2003, was first brought to the agency as the agency’s general counsel and later its deputy director. Previously, his only emergency management experience, according to his White House biography, was when he worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., between 1975-1978 with duties that included oversight of emergency services. Prior to joining FEMA, Brown was commissioner of the Arabian Horse Association.

By comparison, his successor, R. David Paulison, was U.S. Fire administrator when he was appointed to replace Brown in September 2005, and prior to that he had 30 years of experience in emergency services, including chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department with 1,900 employees. He clearly meets the standards established in the new homeland security law.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that for the administration to object to minimal qualifications for the director of FEMA shows that the administration is unrelenting when it comes to protecting executive prerogatives – even if it has a point about the nominating process.

“He can appoint a chimpanzee if he wants, and the Senate can reject that chimpanzee if it chooses,” Ornstein said. “But to argue that Congress can’t ask officials in his administration for information or recommendations without his permission on an issue like homeland security, in which it has clear jurisdiction, is just plain wrong.”

Efforts to get a comment from the Bush administration Friday were unsuccessful.

“Maybe Bush’s objections are based on principle, but politically this is foolish,” said Larry Sabato director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “His move brings more attention to the administration’s mishandling of Katrina and suggests he hasn’t learned much from the debacle.”

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