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.”