Dawn of the Debate Over Quick Federalization

Freeing up the feds: The dialogue over how the federal government can respond more quickly and effectively in the event of a natural disaster on the scale of Katrina appears to be beginning. It’s a sensitive topic, involving that pesky Constitution and states’ rights. But the dialogue has begun over whether the feds should act to deploy assets even if state and local governments have not requested help or declared a state of emergency.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the federal official in charge of recovery efforts in New Orleans, said the federal government might need to establish new criteria for when and how agencies respond to disasters.

“I’m talking about something you could do whether the state requests anything or not. In other words, in the national interest you could say that if we think these conditions are going to be met, maybe we need to deploy assets in advance of the event,” he said. “That’s independent of any request by a governor or a disaster declaration. What you’re doing is prudently positioning units so you might be able to respond in the future.”

He added: “If you know in advance and you have a set of criteria by which you can pre-deploy to reduce the response time and the potential consequences, you probably should do that. If you can’t because of a series of events … then maybe you need to have a mechanism by which you can force a decision quicker on whether or not you need a federal response more than you would normally.”

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) is seeking a review of laws governing use of active military for domestic operations, including law enforcement. Warner, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling for a review of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act and the insurrection statutes written in the 1860s and 1870s.

“That framework of laws has served us well for the history of our country, but our nation is faced with some unusual threats today unlike anything we had when these laws were devised,” Warner said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has jumped on the review bandwagon:

“We may, in some situations, want to give a president … the opportunity early on in a crisis to federalize the operation,” said Lieberman, who is ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“The fear … of federal military usurping state and local authority and, in the worst case, martial law imposed by a president has to give way to the reality of lives on the line that in many cases only federal authorities will save,” Lieberman added.

Man, when they start talking about the “national interest” and “martial law” and the dread Posse Comitatus, I start to get nervous.


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