After September 11, the President of the United States told budget director Mitch Daniels there would be three conditions under which a deficit would be acceptable: recession, national emergency and war: “Lucky me, I hit the trifecta.” First the trifecta, now, with the announcement of his new cabinet-level homeland security department, George W. Bush has pulled a hat trick. In one stroke, Bush overwhelmed the mounting questions about his administration’s pre-9/11 performance regarding terrorism, placed himself in the forefront of change, and undid the Democrats’ 2002 election strategy. Not bad for a President who, of late, was somewhat foundering on the Middle East and 9/11 questions.
The creation of this new federal department–which will result from combining 100 or so agencies–is, in theory, not a bad idea. But all depends on the specifics. The Bush proposal offers members of Congress, policy wonks and pundits much to chew on (and perhaps chew up). The obvious questions were quickly aired in the initial round of analysis. Can agencies of disparate cultures be quickly merged into an entity that functions smoothly? What about the non-homeland security responsibilities of agencies being lassoed into this one big bureaucracy? FEMA is a good example. It spends most of its resources handling crises like hurricanes and floods–not terrorist attacks. But under the Bush plan, it will be managed by people whose mission is to prevent and (if they fail) react to terrorist strikes. Understandably, these officials will likely not care much about FEMA’s non-terrorism duties, and FEMA officials can be expected to cater to the desires of their superiors. So will the non-terrorism operations of FEMA deteriorate? If the problem-ridden Immigration and Naturalization Service is folded into the new department, will it turn into an agency with a terrible bias in favor of keeping non-citizens out of the United States? After all, if security becomes the overriding concern of the INS, it can be expected to err drastically in this direction.
Another subject that requires deep-thinking is the intelligence functions of the new agency. Apparently, the homeland security department will conduct its own terrorism-related analysis. But how will it coordinate with the CIA, the FBI, and the dozen other intelligence agencies? Will it be yet one more bureaucratic competitor in a community of agencies renowned for their inability to operate jointly, or will it be a manager that actually is able to force the other intelligence services to work effectively with one another? If the latter, what will be the source of its power to force cooperation? Also, why start up another intelligence analysis unit, especially in an agency that supposedly will not be collecting intelligence of its own? The department’s analysis will have to be based on information gathered by other services. That assumes the other services will know what to send to these analysts and be willing to do so. And the issue is not merely sharing. Generally, the further analysts are from the collectors, the harder it is for them to produce good analysis. Will the analysts at the new department end up merely coordinating the various analyses kicked out by the other agencies? That could have some value. But it would not be a change that addresses the serious analysis problems that have been exposed at both the FBI and the CIA by 9/11.
Bush’s homeland security will–and should–keep Congress busy for months. It was certainly not sporting of him to dismiss the idea of a new federal agency for months, then push to the front of the parade once he saw proposals of this nature (including legislation being championed by Senator Joseph Lieberman) gaining bipartisan force, and set a tight deadline for Congress, demanding the new department be ready for business on January 1, 2003. But that was his M.O. in Texas. If someone else had a good idea, Bush might start out opposing it, but if the plan started to fly, he would embrace it and eagerly take credit. Such tactics are hard for the opposition to whine about. (It never worked for GOPers who bitched about Bill Clinton swiping their ideas.) And Democrats on the Hill are not in a position to gripe that Bush’s proposal hinders their schedule and undermines their political strategy.
It may still be June, but Congress does not have many working days left this year. Elections are coming, and House members and a third of the Senate (that is, those legislators facing the voters in November) want to spend as much time as possible in their home states. To meet Bush’s deadline, Congress is going to have to drop much of its other business. Moreover, other issues it might still handle will probably receive less attention, particularly as committee and subcommittee chairmen and chairwomen fight for jurisdiction over the new agency and its creation. (Supposedly, 88 committees and subcommittees now oversee components of the department-to-be.) The media space available for Congress will be consumed by stories related to the birthing of this new agency and the accompanying turf battles.
This is bad for the Democrats. If they had any national strategy heading into the fall elections, it was to raise domestic economic issues (primarily in the Senate) on which they believe they possess an advantage. Maybe health care, maybe education, maybe Social Security, maybe prescription drugs. The point was to use the Senate as a mini-bully pulpit and create a divide between Democrats and the Bush-Republican team. No doubt, many key races will be decided by local factors. But if the Dems are able to create momentum at the national level, that might add wind to the sails of their candidates. With the Senate and the House so evenly divided, every puff this year will count.
Poof–that opportunity is practically gone. Bush has grabbed the national political agenda by the horns and steered it in a direction that–what a coincidence–benefits him. Do the Democrats want to argue that a patient’s bill of rights bill ought to be considered before Congress establishes a department vital to the protection of the American homeland? (And Bush has recently made noises about agreeing to a compromise on that subject–which would neutralize another possible Democratic issue.) Bush has pushed what is now his agency–the political equivalent of an 800-pound gorilla–into the center of the national discourse.
The Democrats seem to believe they have no choice but to go along. After Bush’s announcement, most Democratic lawmakers hailed his move and pledged to toil hard to meet his deadline. “Can we do this in three months?” one senior House Democrat told me. “Of course, not. But no one will say that in public.” (This lawmaker also expressed concern about privacy issues raised by the creation of the new department, but said it was doubtful Congress could thoroughly explore this area in the time it had.) Consequently, the Democrats have the worst of both worlds: their agenda is subsumed, and they now share responsibility for passing Bush’s plan on his timetable.
In politics, the best ammunition is a good idea. A Department of Homeland Security sounds reasonable. But if, as the cliche goes, the devil is in the details, the creation of this agency will be devilishly difficult. There are thousands of details, if not more, to weigh. Congress, which already is supposed to be scrutinizing the FBI’s own reorganization, the new (looser) guidelines for FBI domestic snooping, and the pre-9/11 cluelessness of the national security community, ought to not rush to create this new department. That won’t solve the political problem Bush’s proposal poses the Democrats. On that front, they’re deep in the hole. But though they have lost on the politics–bigtime–they still have obligations regarding the substance. Government reorganizations of this type come along only every few decades. And this new department could last a long spell. After all, the war on terrorism, the administration says, might match the Cold War in duration. It would not be inappropriate for Democrats (and Republicans) in Congress to tell the president, after you wasted months fighting this idea, we’re going to take as long as necessary to get this right.