WASHINGTON — The specter of terrorism that has hung over America since Sept. 11 has created an enormous public demand for security. Homeland security has become a massive governmental program, a political issue, a growth industry, a rationale for all sorts of governmental spending and constitutional shortcuts. It is a big deal and keeps getting bigger.
So far, the governmental program has been a hodgepodge of expensive activities spun by quick-moving bureaucrats and thoughtful congressional supporters. The White House office established to coordinate and control the program has been a toothless tiger, especially in the face of powerful forces in the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice.
President George W. Bush has moved to put some order in this important national priority. He has proposed a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, drawing together 22 government agencies in whole or in part under one secretary with a budget estimated to be $37.5 billion. Agencies such as the Customs Service, Coast Guard, Border Control and Federal Emergency Management Agency will now answer to a single boss who can effectively marshal the resources of the federal government in the fight against terrorism.
His proposal has been well received in Congress. In fact, much of what he has proposed has been in legislation that is already moving. The big problem on the Hill is that the reorganization of the executive branch envisioned by the proposal is so vast that it plays havoc with the organization of Congress itself. Congress is organized into committees with responsibilities defined by the department and agencies they control. The Bush proposal affects the jurisdictions of 67 House committees and subcommittees. The executive branch reorganization will require a massive reorganization of the congressional responsibility chart to accommodate the changes.
Of course, the congressional oversight committees have gotten accustomed to their responsibilities and take them seriously. They also have pet projects and special programs tucked away in those agencies that now may be moved out from under their jurisdiction. That is the big problem this proposal is causing in Congress. It reorders the control. Nothing is more difficult to do than that. But the bill will pass. It will pass before Sept. 11, so that the president can sign it on that date.
The politics of homeland security is alive and well. Certainly the president continues to enjoy high personal approval ratings on the basis of his conduct of the war on terrorism — and that is really providing security for the homeland. Polls show that voters continue to be concerned about matters of personal safety. They demand that government protective services be efficient. The post mortems on our intelligence services poor coordination increase these concerns.
You may recall that back at the turn of the year, Carl Rove, the president’s political Rasputin, trumpeted that the Warrior image of Bush as the ace card for the 2002 election for Republican congressional candidates. In an interview this week, he indicated that he still thinks the war is the big plus for the president and Republican candidates. As a theme for the president’s 2004 re-election campaign, he likes: “Are you safer now than you were four years ago?”
The proposal for the new department is good government, and it is also good politics for the White House. It comes at a time when the White House was losing the political edge on domestic security matters to Democrats in Congress. The Bush popularity has not translated itself into support for his domestic agenda. It has languished since the Democrats took over the Senate, and the popularity of the president seems to have no effect on his legislative proposals. With the homeland security bill, issues on which the Democrats may have an advantage get shoved aside. It also throws a huge blanket over the entire domestic agenda. Homeland security becomes the domestic agenda right now.
For that reason, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, hopes to move quickly to get the homeland security bill passed. Daschle predicted the Senate would finish work on the matter by late July, which would allow the two chambers to work out their differences after the August recess.
The president’s proposal is almost identical to one introduced by Connecticut’s Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman last fall. He chairs the committee that has jurisdiction on the matter and has held extensive hearings on the questions. It will be easy for him to move the bill quickly to the floor for action.
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