House Panel Begins Review of Katrina Response

The House Committee on Government Reform begins hearings on lessons learned from Katrina. The witnesses include about a dozen experts with hands-on emergency experience, as well as a former mayor of New Orleans. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), vice president of the committee, says federal spending — including no-bid contracts for reconstruction — will be examined for mismanagement.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The House Committee on Government Reform holds its first hearing today on lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. The witnesses include about a dozen experts with hands-on emergency experience as well as a former mayor of New Orleans. Republican Congressman Christopher Shays is vice chairman of the committee.

Congressman, welcome.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Democratic leaders are asking the Government Accountability Office to review federal spending on Katrina. They point to the first set of contracts that have been awarded without competition. Will your committee review how these really vast sums of money are being spent on reconstruction?

Rep. SHAYS: We're talking about huge dollars, and you can be assured we're going to be very concerned how this money is spent. It's one reason why when we passed the $50 billion second appropriation that we insisted that $50 million of it go for an inspector general.

MONTAGNE: The company Bechtel has a new contract. Halliburton is one big company that is going to be working on reconstruction. These companies are very politically connected. Many are big donors to your party, the Republican Party. How can this be done fairly?

Rep. SHAYS: I don't know how it can be done fairly, frankly. There's shades of Iraq to this that make me very uncomfortable. My concern is that the people who should be helping to rebuild our Gulf states are the people who live there, and I'm concerned that we're bringing in these huge companies that are going to bring people from outside, and I think this is not the way to approach it. It was a mistake in Iraq, and I think frankly it would be a mistake with our Gulf states.

MONTAGNE: But it appears to be the case that these companies are in. I mean, can you do anything about it in these hearings?

Rep. SHAYS: Well, they're in. The question is how in are they in, and how much of this work are they actually going to do? The value of some of these larger companies is that they have everything in place. They can just ship down so many different things that are needed right now that no one else has the capability to do. But the rebuilding part, in my judgment, and that's going to be where the big expenses ultimately are, need to be done by local people.

MONTAGNE: There is, of course, in a crisis like this, pressure to move fast, to spend money fast, to help people out. How is the government going to be able to avoid wasting money, and I'm thinking here of the last series of hurricanes in Florida where FEMA did move in, did hand out checks to victims. And now we're hearing that the government is asking for money back from quite a sizable number of people who weren't actually hurricane victims.

Rep. SHAYS: And there are a lot of different emotions. To respond to your answer, one is this is such a crisis that we probably are going to err on getting money out and helping people, and in the process, help some who didn't need the help. And that's not something I'm comfortable in saying, but the alternative is lots of red tape. By the time folks get money, in many cases, it would be too late. So we're trying to balance the two. What we hope by having an inspector general is that we will have someone who will be looking at what is happening all along the way and that we have stiff penalties for abuse and that people will pay a price if they think they're going to be able to rip off the government.

MONTAGNE: Congressman Christopher Shays is the vice chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. He is a Republican from Connecticut.

Thank you very much.

Rep. SHAYS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: A photo gallery of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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