The Crony Fairy
By PAUL KRUGMAN
The U.S. government is being stalked by an invisible bandit, the Crony Fairy, who visits key agencies by dead of night, snatches away qualified people and replaces them with unqualified political appointees. There's no way to catch or stop the Crony Fairy, so our only hope is to change the agencies' names. That way she might get confused, and leave our government able to function. That, at least, is how I interpret the report on responses to Hurricane Katrina that was just released by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The report points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency ''had been operating at a more than 15 percent staff-vacancy rate for over a year before Katrina struck'' -- that means many of the people who knew what they were doing had left. And it adds that ''FEMA's senior political appointees had little or no prior relevant emergency-management experience.''
But the report says nothing about what caused the qualified people to leave and who appointed unqualified people to take their place. There's no hint that, say, President Bush might have had any role. So those political appointees must have been installed by the Crony Fairy.
Rather than trying to fix FEMA, the report calls for replacing it with a new organization, the National Preparedness and Response Agency. As far as I can tell, the new agency would have exactly the same responsibilities as FEMA. But ''senior N.P.R.A. officials would be selected from the ranks of professionals with experience in crisis management.'' I guess it's impossible to select qualified people to run FEMA; if you try, the Crony Fairy will spirit them away and replace them with Michael Brown. But she might not know her way to N.P.R.A.
O.K., enough sarcasm. Let's talk about the history of FEMA.
In the early 1990's, FEMA's reputation was as bad as it is today. It was a dumping ground for political cronies, headed by a man whose only apparent qualification for the job was that he was a close friend of the first President Bush's chief of staff. FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 perfectly foreshadowed Katrina: the agency took three days to arrive on the scene, and when it did, it proved utterly incompetent.
Many people thought that FEMA was a lost cause. But Bill Clinton proved them wrong. He appointed qualified people to lead the agency and gave them leeway to hire other qualified people, and within a year FEMA's morale and performance had soared. For the rest of the Clinton years, FEMA was among the most highly regarded agencies in the federal government.
What happened to that reputation? The answer, of course, is that the second President Bush returned to his father's practices. Once again, FEMA became a dumping ground for cronies, and many of the good people who had come in during the Clinton years left. It took only a few years to transform one of the best agencies in the U.S. government into what Senator Susan Collins calls ''a shambles and beyond repair.''
In other words, the Crony Fairy is named George W. Bush.
So what's the point of creating a new agency to replace FEMA? The history of FEMA and other agencies during the Clinton years shows that a president who is serious about governing can rebuild effective government without renaming the boxes on the organizational chart.
On the other hand, the history of the Bush administration, from the botched reconstruction of Iraq to the botched start-up of the prescription drug program, shows that a president who isn't serious about governing, who prizes loyalty and personal connections over competence, can quickly reduce the government of the world's most powerful nation to third-world levels of ineffectiveness.
And bear in mind that Mr. Bush's pattern of cronyism didn't change after Katrina. For example, he appointed Julie Myers, the inexperienced niece of Gen. Richard Myers, to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- an agency that, like FEMA, is supposed to protect us against terrorism as well as other threats. Even at the C.I.A., the administration seems more interested in purging Democrats than in improving the quality of intelligence.
So let's skip the name change for FEMA, O.K.? The United States will regain effective government if and when it gets a president who cares more about serving the nation than about rewarding his friends and scoring political points. That's at least a thousand days away. Meanwhile, don't count on FEMA, or on any other government agency, to do its job.