These are times of threat and crisis. So say the leaders of our government, and maybe they are right. Al Qaeda, they report, is on the rise, and terrorism alerts have been issued. The message: expect something big–“spectacular,” said one memo–to happen any day now. On top of that, the President and most of Congress warn that Saddam Hussein poses a severe danger–perhaps a nuclear risk–requiring immediate and complete neutralization. There is not a second to lose, for at any moment he might develop a nuclear bomb–that is, if he hasn’t already!–and slip it to the operatives of Osama bin Laden’s resurgent terrorist network. Meanwhile, the sluggish economy persists, and millions of unemployed workers will be walloped by a suspension in unemployment benefits during the holiday season.
How does Congress meet its responsibilities in such a perilous period? It skips town–without careful consideration of the homeland security bill, without finishing up its budget business, without providing funding for the newest domestic security measures, without completing work on extending unemployment payments, without carefully vetting the latest anti-terrorism surveillance measures being embraced by the Bush administration, and without providing further oversight of Bush’s movement toward war against Iraq.
Both Democrats and Republicans share fault. Each party was eager to wrap up the lame duck session, which had been arranged when Congress failed to take care of much of its business by mid-October. (After all, senators and representatives up for reelection had to hurry home to campaign.) But in the post-election session, the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House rushed through important tasks and ignored others.
Top on its to-do list was okaying legislation creating a homeland security department. Congress did so, but at a cost. The 74-year-old Democratic Senator Robert Byrd complained on the Senate floor that the 484-page homeland security legislation was plopped on senators’ desk: “It has not been before any committee. There have been no hearings on this bill. There have been no witnesses who were asked to appear to testify on behalf of the bill or in opposition. It did not undergo any such scrutiny….The American people expect us to provide our best judgment and our best insight into such monumental decisions. This is a far, far cry from being our best…If I had to go before the bar of judgment tomorrow and were asked by the eternal God what is in this bill, I could not answer God.”
God may not care about the details of this piece of legislation, but the public–and, certainly, its elected representatives–should. The measure marked the largest reorganization of the government in five decades. It is a project that will require 12 to 18 months (if not more) to complete. Yet George W. Bush and the GOPers called for quick passage, and the Democrats (after putting up a losing fight in the Senate over several special-interest gifts tucked into the bill) acceded. Given the time needed to pull together the new department, it did not matter greatly if Congress approved this legislation in mid-November or waited a month or two and used that extra time to read the bill and rid it of those corporate perks (such as the provision granting drug manufacturer Eli Lilly protection from a particular class of lawsuits). And it might not matter (in terms of providing more security) whether such a Cabinet-level department is ever set up. Critics and government-organization specialists have argued that the new department might have to spend so much time and so many resources dealing with internal bureaucratic issues (who answers to whom, who gets what parking space, what offices are merged or purged) that the mission at hand–preventing acts of terrorism against the United States–will be undermined. A few months back, the Brookings Institution released a report raising serious questions about this sort of reorganization. As one terrorism expert says, “In Washington, if you cannot eat something or make love to it, you reorganize it.” Byrd huffed, “This is a hoax…This bill does nothing–not a thing–to make our citizens more secure today or tomorrow.”