- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

On Friday, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced a "wartime reorganization and mobilization" of the entire Justice Department that might be the most revolutionary development in federal relations in decades.

A week earlier, the new FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, promised to turn less critical law enforcement back to local police and focus resources on the essential responsibility of fighting terrorism.

Something very significant is going on in Washington and it has received relatively little public notice perhaps because it is good news for friends of freedom. The media have been dominated by news of government requests for more powers to combat the forces of terrorism. But the FBI and Justice headquarters are now setting priorities between essential national functions and local responsibilities that has the exciting prospect of reinvigorating federalism.

Many citizens have been worried that the expansion of Washington's police role would seriously limit the nation's hard-won liberties. A wide range of groups were active in moderating some of the provisions of the first anti-terrorism bill, desiring to give the government the power it needed but no more. They were concerned that another war would become another excuse to build the bureaucratic state. A vast array of congressional pork-barrel proposals in the guise of combating terrorism such as billions for Amtrak, highways, Indian health service, rural airports, buffalo herd protection for rich Hollywood ranchers etc. reinforced this belief.

President George W. Bush was concerned too. In a recent speech before federal employees, he warned: "We must resist pressure to unwisely expand government." He has begun trying to remove the requirement that airport baggage screeners be government employees. After all, it was federal rules not poor screening that allowed box-cutters on the hijacked airliners. He has opposed further increases in so-called emergency spending and has warned against unnecessary changes in our way of life in combating terrorism.

The best news is from the FBI's Mr. Mueller. At a speech before the International Association of Police Chiefs, he acknowledged that the FBI had turned down needed offers of support from local police. "This is unacceptable," he added and promised future cooperation during his term. More important, he said the FBI would de-emphasize bank robberies simply because those were federally chartered and leave these matters to local law enforcement, where they belong. At a congressional hearing that same week, Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a former agent, recalled that the FBI trained him to believe that "local law enforcement is uneducated and corrupt" and agreed that this national government "culture" of bias needed to be changed.

While the attorney general's proposals were not fully disclosed, resources were redirected to counterterrorism and away from headquarters to the field. He promised to redirect manpower and resources from less essential national functions to free up the resources needed to combat the enemy. "We must focus on our core mission and responsibilities, understanding that the department will not be all things to all people. We cannot do everything we once did, because lives now depend on us doing a few things very well."

While important, functions like undercover local drug enforcement, local law enforcement grant-making, equal employment, housing and voting enforcement, pollution abatement and so forth are duplicated at both local and state levels and could be handled there just as effectively, according to department officials.

The best argument for federalism, starting with the Founders, has been that there should be a division of labor among society's institutions. States and localities, being closer to the problems can handle most government responsibilities better, as New York proved. The market can resolve most economic matters, as the Soviets inadvertently demonstrated. Families can and do carry most of the burden of caring for the young and the elderly. But the national government is the only institution that can protect the rest from foreign attack. The president, attorney general and FBI director have their priorities right. It may be necessary to give reasonable new powers to the Feds to combat terrorism but, at the same time, it is critical for the survival of liberty as Ronald Reagan always used to say to turn the other functions back to "communities and the people."

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.


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