Friday, October 28

Nothing New Under the Sun

I was very interested to hear of a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) publication describing the Executive branch's response to the Mississippi River flood of 1927, exacerbated when the river's levees failed in Arkansas and Mississippi after extreme rainfall. I learned about the report in Secrecy News' recent update here. The report may be downloaded here.

Immediately after the disaster, the President Coolidge bore the brunt of criticism that the federal government was not working fast enough to provide relief. (Sound familiar?)

As a response, President Coolidge empowered then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to act as the director of federal flood response, coordinating action among government agencies, the Red Cross and private organizations. (Also sound familiar?) Members of Congress and many editorials have been asking for a recovery "czar," with powers and responsibilities much like those given to Hoover.

So, how did the government do? Were there any problems? I will let the report summary speak for itself:

This report describes the flood of 1927, and assesses the federal government’s response thereto. In short, the federal response was an executive branch response. President Calvin Coolidge created a quasi-governmental commission that included members of his Cabinet and the American National Red Cross. This commission encouraged the public to donate funds to the relief effort. It also gave Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover near-absolute authority to organize and oversee its response. Hoover used this authority to weave together federal resources, American National Red Cross volunteers, and the private sector to carry out the relief and recovery program.

The concentration of power and the blending of the governmental and private sectors in Hoover’s hands enabled the relief effort to be carried out expeditiously and creatively. President Coolidge’s empowerment of Hoover alone as director of the flood response clarified to federal, state, and local officials and the public who was in charge.

However, this administrative structure was not without costs. There was little direct federal oversight of actual relief provision. So, for example, when local and state relief workers behaved illegally, they were not held accountable. Furthermore, the concentration of power in a single set of hands enabled Secretary Hoover to undertake inadvisable actions with nearly no constraints.

I do not bring up this instance from the past loosely. We are on the verge of appointing a new recovery "czar" to direct the reconstruction efforts from Katrina, Rita and Wilma. I encourage our government to remember both the successes and failures of the past, and structure any new efforts to recreate those successes and avoid those failures. To quote yet another cliché, those that do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

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