Congress and Homeland Security

Politics, Process, and Prospects

Mar 07, 2003

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress moved quickly not only to give the President authority to use force abroad against those responsible, but also to shore up the nation's internal defenses against terrorism. It enacted measures in such areas as aviation and port security, and bioterrorism. But it took nearly a year to resolve differences over creating a Department of Homeland Security that brings together 170,000 federal employees from 22 federal agencies with a budget of nearly $40 billion--the biggest executive reorganization in a half-century. In this Congress Project seminar, a panel of experts including two members of Congress, a political science scholar, and a congressional journalist explored the interplay of politics and processes in Congress to address this new challenge as well as the outlook for the future.

The push for a department of homeland security actually preceded the 9/11 attacks. Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) introduced the first bill to give cabinet status to a homeland security agency back in March 2001 based on a recommendation made the previous month by the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security/21st Century. Thornberry said that while the House Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the proposal in April, there was little support for a new agency prior to 9/11. “We beat on the Administration to support it, but they moved slowly.”

After September 11th, the President appointed Governor Thomas Ridge to coordinate a new homeland security policy out of the White House and “see what it was like to talk to these agencies all over the government and country.” But the White House office had little real control and no budget authority. When the President tried to consolidate the various border agencies, “he was slapped down.” The Administration finally came around to supporting the cabinet department in June 2002. There was still a lot of negotiating to be done because the Administration wanted far more powers in the new department than Congress was willing to give it.

Nevertheless, by late November, after much negotiating between the White House and Congress, the bill became law. “Reorganizing the Executive Branch for homeland security was the easy part,” cautioned Thornberry. “The real hard part lies ahead as we try to fine tune the law and put new policies in place.”

Moreover, Congress will have to reorganize itself to effectively oversee the new department, and both branches will have to work together to set priorities. Thus far Congress has established a 50-member House Select Committee that includes chairmen from nine other committees. And both the House and Senate appropriations commmitees have created homeland security subcommittees.

“I see this as an opportunity for a new partnership between the legislative and executive branches. There was tremendous cooperation in creating the department, but there’s always a danger that it could break down. If the Administration does not share information with Congress, or Congress leaks sensitive information or slaps a homeland security label on every bridge a member wants, it’s not going to work.” Thornberry concluded that, “Clear, honest communication between Congress and the Administration and with our citizens and the rest of the world is necessary if we hope to succeed in our war on terrorism.”

Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) worked closely with Thornberry in developing the homeland security reorganization legislation. “After September 11th we tried to speak as one voice and one government. We went over to the Senate for our ‘free Tom Ridge’ sessions” since he was prevented from formally testifying to Congress as a White House advisor. “He was well qualified for the job,” said Tauscher, “but he wasn’t given sufficient authority to solve the problem until after the Administration agreed to the idea for a department.” Even then, she observed, “We didn’t recognize the first bill they sent up as our baby, so that required working closely with the Administration to make the legislation acceptable to us. We had to work in a bipartisan way to achieve consensus.”

Tauscher agreed with Thornberry that the real tough part lies ahead. For one thing, “there are too many people on the new House Select Committee on Homeland Security who did not vote for the department in the first place. We will need people who will be held accountable on the political side. We’ll need a procurement strategy that will address the needs of first responders around the country.”

Tauscher cited the example of her own congressional district where the various law enforcement and fire departments have radios “that don’t talk to each other.” “How do we get them to do this; whose responsibility is it?” Tauscher says another problem that worries families is the fact they are separated for much of the day given their commuting patterns. How would parents and children be reunited in the event of a large attack? A lot of work needs to be done at the community level to develop contingency plans. Tauscher emphasized the need for a significant investment strategy that will largely involve new technologies and extensive training.

Forrest Maltzman, associate professor of political science, The George Washington University, said from a political science standpoint, he had predicted a new cabinet department would not be enacted in to law in the last Congress since it ran contrary to one popular notion among presidential scholars that the President would want to retain unilateral control over policies in such a major area. Nevertheless, when the President did change his mind and supported a department, many interpreted it as a purely partisan move. Maltzman disagreed, saying that both the President and Ridge realized that they would not be able to control the disparate agencies from the White House given their different mandates and cultures. Moreover, Bush had a problem with Congress so long as he was pursuing a unilateral policy, and that had to be fixed if he was to get results. This was one of the lessons Maltzman derived from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In most cases, Maltzman has observed that a President will not be successful if he acts unilaterally.

“The Congress had no incentive to reorganize itself so long as this was being run out of the White House,” and the Administration did not like the idea of reporting to some 88 committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate. Maltzman added that the dispute between the White House and Congress over employee rights in the new department was blown out of proportion. The real issues were over how much control and flexibility the Executive would have over the new department. On that, both sides can say they won.

Martin Kady, reporter for CQ Weekly, said there will be five or six issues that will be “flashpoints” on homeland security over the next year. The first is over how much funding and training there should be for first responders at the local level. This has already been a major source of controversy between the White House and Congress, partly given differing notions of how much money should be spent on what needs. One specific and still unanswered question that has arisen concerns unfunded mandates for states and localities. When the DHS raises the security threat level from yellow to orange, and states and localities respond with increased security, is this a funded or unfunded mandate?

Intelligence will also continue to be a problem since the new department will be primarily dependent on outside sources like the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for information. The President has further complicated this by calling for a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center under the C.I.A.-—a function that seems duplicative of the intelligence analysis division in the Homeland Security Department.

The overall budget allocations will be an ongoing source of friction since there are many homeland security related functions and missions in agencies that are not part of the cabinet department. Privacy and civil liberties remain an area of concern on the part of many both inside and outside Congress. The leaked version of the USA Patriot Act II legislation stirred up so much opposition that the Attorney General disavowed it as a formal proposal. Congressional oversight will remain a difficult issue in both houses. It is not certain the new select committee will be able to deter other committees from wanting to stay actively involved in oversight. Finally, labor issues will continue to surface as unions try to organize the Transportation Security Agency workers and others.

In the follow-up question period, the panelists generally agreed that money will remain the big sticking point—--how much should be spent for what priorities; and that getting Congress to reorganize itself for homeland security will be a major hurdle given the turf sensitivities of existing committee chairmen and their ranking minority members. Thornberry noted that there are nine House committee chairmen on the new, 50-member House select committee, “and more subcommittee chairmen than I’ve ever seen in one place before.”

Questions of cooperation between the two branches aside, Americans understand that if we are to remain a free and open society we will never be completely safe from attacks from any number of sources. Thus is the dilemma of maintaining individual rights and freedoms on the one hand while insuring security on the other. Yet, this is not a new issue or balancing act for the republic. In early debates in the colonial legislatures Benjamin Franklin offered this word of caution to his colleagues and to future generations of Americans: “Those who give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The question for presidents and legislatures in today’s climate of fear and anxiety will continue to be: “How much security is enough, and at what price?”






EMAIL UPDATES

Experts & Staff