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.”

Byrd has a penchant for dramatic rhetoric. But, then, so does Bush. When he signed the legislation on November 25, he declared, “we are taking historic action to defend the United States and protect our citizens against the dangers of a new era….This essential reform was carefully considered by Congress.” Bush, you might recall, spent about nine months after 9/11 opposing such a reorganization, maintaining it would not increase security for Americans. But when questions were raised about his administration’s performance prior to the attacks, he quickly pivoted and called for lickety-split approval of his own legislation setting up a new department. The ensuing debate in Congress focused mostly on Bush’s attempts (successful in the end) to deep-six workplace protections for the department’s employees. (Democrats howled; Republicans cheered.) Conservatives in and out of Congress were not all enamored with this big-government response to September 11, but they mostly kept mum, and few Democrats examined the wisdom of rushing ahead with this reshuffling.

What made the rush to enact this legislation all the more silly was that it came as Congress failed to address more immediate security concerns. As the Senate and House got hung up on the homeland security department bill and legislation authorizing Bush to declare war on Iraq whenever he sees fit, both houses failed to find the time to pass most appropriations bills. The government continues to operate because the Senate and the House approved a stopgap measure keeping programs funded at their current levels. But this means money is not available for new homeland security initiatives–emergency response, bio-chemical weapons defense, and much more–and now this new funding may not hit the relevant agencies until the middle of 2003. Take a step back and survey the scene: supposedly vital programs designed to protect Americans are going unfunded, and Congress skedaddles for seven weeks.

Yet no one has to pay for such dereliction of duty–partly because it’s a bipartisan evasion. The Democrats could have tried to stir up a fuss, perhaps demand Congress remain in session to deal more thoroughly with the homeland security bill and to appropriate funds for counter-terrorism programs (as well as tend to the unemployed). But they often fret about coming across as obstructionists. And Senate Democrats had recently witnessed their colleague, Max Cleland of Georgia, lose in the election thanks to an underhanded commercial that cited his votes against the homeland security bill and questioned his patriotism. (Cleland apparently was vulnerable because he lost only three limbs while serving in Vietnam.) It was understandable that Democrats were spooked by the possibility of being branded anti-homeland. Still, in Washington, there is always justification for caution. The bottom line–politics aside–is that Congress is shirking fundamental responsibilities.

War may be at hand, a terrorist attack reminiscent of 9/11 may be imminent, and Congress vacates Washington as if nothing was different. What a lack of seriousness. Is al Qaeda taking time off?