- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Each morning, President Bush reads a detailed threat assessment prepared by his advisers describing the latest terrorist threats to the United States. What potential target is in this morning's report? A water treatment plant? A national monument? A high-traffic bridge?

The point is, the terrorist threat can literally change overnight. Our response must be equally agile. Unfortunately, Senate leaders are refusing the president's request that the new Department of Homeland Security have the managerial flexibility to, in his words, "get the right people in the right place at the right time with the right pay."

Homeland security is not just about moving management boxes around on an organizational chart. It's about moving quickly to detect and deter terrorists. The new department needs the freedom to manage people and move resources where and when they're needed most.

Under the president's plan, federal managers would be able to quickly hire the right employees, pay them according to their contributions and hold them accountable for their performance. His plan would also allow resources to be quickly redeployed to meet the threat. For example, if terrorists were to target our borders, the secretary of homeland security would have the latitude, subject to congressional notification, to reallocate a small portion of the departmental budget for increased border security.

Last week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said that the Senate bill "gives the president about 90 percent of what he asked for." But what's missing could mean the difference between success or failure. Without managerial flexibility, Congress threatens to create a "Department of Hollow Security."

The current system handcuffs federal agencies in ways the American people might find shocking. It can take up to five months to hire a single person, particularly in specialized fields such as biodefense. An antiquated pay system designed more than 50 years ago frustrates our ability to attract skilled workers from the private sector. Employee actions are based not on merit but on the calendar; out of nearly 1.8 million federal workers, last year fewer than 500 were demoted or removed and just over 600 were denied their scheduled pay raises.

Federal workers themselves appreciate the problem. According to a recent survey, two-thirds believe that poor performers in their ranks are not adequately disciplined. And nearly half say their job performance has little or nothing to do with their chances for promotion. The vast majority of federal employees are capable, dedicated public servants. They deserve better.

The Department of Homeland Security will still be run according to merit-based civil-service principles protected by law for decades. Workers will retain collective bargaining rights, whistleblower protections and protection against unlawful discrimination. Employees transferring to the new department will bring their current pay and benefits packages with them.

This would not be the first agency to enjoy managerial flexibility. Last year, Congress created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to manage security at our nation's airports. Under the terms of the legislation, airport screeners can be held individually accountable for poor performance and even face dismissal. This has not hampered hiring; to date, the TSA has received nearly 400,000 applications for fewer than 60,000 positions.

Federal workers want what the president and all Americans want a safe and secure homeland. And they're willing to work overtime to make it happen. As the president's homeland security adviser, I believe federal employees are ready to succeed in a merit-based workplace.

The debate over managerial flexibility is not an insignificant, inside-the-Beltway argument. It's a matter of national security. That's why it is doubly disappointing that the Senate bill would weaken and limit a basic national-security right employed by every president since Jimmy Carter. The Senate should return full authority to the president to take action under the Federal Labor-Management Relations Act when national security demands it. As the president has said, "A time of war is the wrong time to weaken the president's ability to protect the American people."

In contrast to the House, which has already passed a bill, the Senate may not meet its goal of finalizing a bill by September 11. It should use the added time to join the House and put managerial flexibility into the bill. It will send a signal that we want the best and the brightest in the nation to help secure the homeland.

More than a half-century ago, President Harry S. Truman reorganized the U.S. military to meet the new threats of the emerging Cold War. He told Congress that the old system, "prescribed by detailed statutes, was far too rigid and inflexible for the actual conduct of war." He added, "The issue today is not whether we should have unification, but how we can make it more effective."

As we conduct the war on terrorism, we have an opportunity to learn from the past. We must not create a Department of Homeland Security that is too rigid and inflexible to meet the threat. If Congress approves a bill without managerial flexibility, its victory will be a hollow one.

Tom Ridge is the director of the Office of Homeland Security.

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