Clinton Claims Credit for Bill She Didn't Pass

One of the knocks on Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, by her opponents is that she takes credit for things she shouldn't -- say, the myriad successes of her husband's administration (and few of its failures).

Those inclined to wonder about this quality may have gotten more fuel for the fire yesterday.

During yesterday's Des Moines Register debate, the moderator asked Clinton: "As president, would you use signing statements to assert that certain acts of Congress conflict with your interpretation of the Constitution and your obligation to enforce those laws?"

The senator responded: "I would use them the way presidents before this president used them. They were used to clarify the law to perhaps make it more coherent with other laws that have been passed. And along came President Bush. He's used them as essentially a form of veto. He did it through a piece of legislation I passed, where it was pretty simple. I said: If you're going to have a FEMA director, it should be somebody with experience handling emergencies ... we actually had to pass it through the Congress. And when George Bush signed the bill it was part of, he specifically used a signing statement to say, 'I don't have to follow that, unless I choose to."

But knowledgeable Senate sources say that is not what happened. Clinton never "passed" the legislation to do this.

It's true that the 2006 Homeland Security Bill contained a provision to require that the FEMA director have expertise beyond Arabian horses. 

And it's true that in October 2006, Bush issued a signing statement taking issue with that part of the bill, writing that that provision "purports to limit the qualifications of the pool of persons from whom the president may select the appointee in a manner that rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office."

But did Clinton "pass" this provision?  How much can she credibly claim credit for it?

Myriad knowledgeable Senate sources say she did not pass this provision, and she cannot claim credit for any of it.  She's not on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, for one.

In September 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Clinton introduced a bill (S 1615) that among other things would have required "The Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency shall have significant experience, knowledge, training, and expertise in the area of emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation as related to natural disasters and other national cataclysmic events."

The bill would also have established FEMA as its own Cabinet-level agency.

That bill went nowhere.

In November 2005, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, introduced "The Department of Homeland Security Qualified Leaders Act" which would have required top officials of the Department of Homeland Security have "(A) at least 5 years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector; (B) at least 5 years of significant experience in a field relevant to the position for which the individual is nominated."

Akaka's bill, too, went nowhere.

In May 2006, Clinton introduced a bill (S. 1427) containing the same language as her previous one. On July 11, 2006, Clinton's bill failed overwhelmingly -- by a vote of 32 to 66.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- led by then-Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking non-Republican Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Akaka -- was holding dozens of hearings and had long been working on a  FEMA overhaul bill that included a provision that the FEMA administrator have experience in emergency management and homeland security and at least five years of executive leadership.

That provision was always in the bill as Collins, Lieberman, and Akaka wrangled over the details.

What finally passed out of committee was based on Akaka's November 2005 bill, "The Department of Homeland Security Qualified Leaders Act." The committee's bill required that the FEMA "Administrator shall be appointed from among individuals who have -- (A) a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security; and  (B) not less than 5 years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector."

When the conference committee bill -- HR 2360 -- was set to pass the House and Senate in September 2006 as part of the $34 billion Department of Homeland Security spending bill, Lieberman said that it contained a number of provisions that he and Collins "recommended following their eight-month investigation into the failed federal preparations for and response to the deadly August 2005 hurricane," including one stating that "the administrator and other top regional officials would be required to have emergency management experience."

Clinton's claim that she "passed" this legislation met with strong protest on Capitol Hill today.

"What Senator Clinton said is absolutely absurd," said one knowledgeable Senate source who was involved in the drafting of the legislation but didn't want Clinton angry with the source's boss. "She hasn't been a huge player in FEMA reform at all."

The Clinton folks disagree.

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines says, "After Hurricane Katrina, Senator Clinton was at the forefront of championing two proposals: 1) Restoring FEMA to its independent, cabinet-level status, and 2) Requiring that the FEMA Director possess the proper emergency management qualifications in order to hold that position. Senator Clinton's proposal, which she is proud of, passed the Congress and became law (FY07 DHS Approps).  Then, as she said yesterday, President Bush issued a signing statement essentially vetoing the provision."

"That's not true," says the source when told of Reines' account.

Clinton forces originally said her language was incorporated into the Homeland Security bill. They backed off that claim after it was pointed out that it wasn't.

Then they started saying she deserved credit for the idea. But Hill sources say the notion was pretty obvious to anyone who didn't think Brownie did a "heckuva job" that expertise was direly needed in the head of that agency.

"A piece of legislation I passed" ? A very questionable claim.

- jpt

NOTE: This post has been updated, at the request of Clinton's Senate office, to replace the word "challenging" with "championing" in Philippe Reines' statement above.

UPDATE: Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, writes to say that Clinton's advocacy on the subject should not be discounted. "Following Katrina, Senator Clinton was the most forceful advocate on the Senate floor for competence and independence at FEMA," he writes. "As a former member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which oversaw FEMA and DHS, I was happy to see her long-standing idea to improve the FEMA Director’s qualifications become law. Unfortunately, President Bush ignored her reforms with his signing statement.”

UPDATE #2: Sen. Akaka writes that "Senator Clinton was the first Senator to offer legislation that required subject matter expertise. My views on this issue were informed by her earlier legislative ideas.   ...While I am not endorsing a candidate in the primary, I want to set the record straight on this matter.  Senator Clinton deserves applause for her efforts."

Boy, I had no idea so many Senators read Political Punch! (Your tax dollars at work.) I thought I made it clear that Sen. Clinton had the idea early on -- that what seemed questionable is that she referred to that provision in the Homeland Security legislation as "a piece of legislation I passed" since she didn't pass it and didn't write it.

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