- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Only in the wacky world of Washington would a bill to strengthen homeland security in the wake of the September 11 attack end up with less power to provide security than beforehand. Yet, that is precisely what the United States Senate is planning to do as its first item of business immediately after Labor Day.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and his fellow Government Affairs Committee legislators want to create a new Department of Homeland Security that simply cannot function. For the first time in history, an American Cabinet secretary would not be able to assign the right people to handle the most vital missions. He will specifically be forbidden from melding the various units being assigned to the new department into a coherent operating agency. And this is in an organization supposedly responsible for protecting against terrorism.

How bad is it? For one, the Border Patrol is specifically forbidden to report to the new undersecretary for border and transportation protection. Instead, the new DHS secretary is ordered to keep all of the 170,000 employees of the new department in the same separate agencies at the same level of budget authority.

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One might ask, why bother to create a new department to coordinate antiterrorism in the first place? Good question. After all, every previous secretary even the less-than-critical Education Department has had the authority to assign personnel where they can perform their duties most efficiently.

So, what is really going on? The real agenda of the Democrats, and a few Republicans, is to win points from their federal employee constituents and their allies, the big federal union bosses. According to the senior staffer involved in the negotiations in the House, the only item of contention or even interest by representatives was on employee and labor issues. No one was debating security issues at all.

The reason is that 40,000 bargaining unit potential members of 17 different federal unions will be transferred to the new department. The unions want to keep the dues and the special privileges that they have wheedled from a supine management over the years. They do not want little matters like national security to get in the way of coffee breaks, bargaining over whether an emergency really exists, or even whether employees will work at all on new assignments. The bill would even take away the president's existing power to exempt security agencies from time-consuming labor bargaining, which can often take years to settle the most mundane matters of what kind of work employees should be performing. In the meantime, nothing happens.

The committee bill would eliminate the president's authority to keep petty matters of union bargaining out of serious matters like homeland security but it would not eliminate it for any other agency. If this is such a good idea, why not extend it to the FBI or the CIA?

Emergencies like terrorism simply do not allow the luxury of endless bargaining over what needs to be done. Denial of this presidential authority is simply to penalize him for having the temerity to ask for more flexibility in managing security matters in a federal bureaucracy. He also requested the power to harmonize the 22 different pay, classification, work appraisal, disciplinary and reward systems being transferred in from several odd departments. Imagine, having the nerve to be concerned about national security efficiency when important matters like union prerogatives and employee comfort are involved.

President George W. Bush had better follow through on his threatened veto or his credibility in Washington will be zero. If the Department of Homeland Security cannot be done right, it should not be done at all. Mr. Bush already has acceded too much on mandating tenured bureaucrats for airport security (have you not noticed the "improvement" in service?), signing an unconstitutional campaign reform bill, and taking credit for an education bill that was stripped of his best proposals. If he does not go to the mat on his No. 1 issue of protecting the nation from terrorism, everyone will know he can be rolled and that he will sign anything with an attractive title, no matter how silly.

Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, is on board, so all Mr. Bush must do is hold the Republicans. But Sens. George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Ted Stevens of Alaska, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and George Voinovich of Ohio have not signed on.

Any who refuse to give the president the power to manage his new department simply must pay a severe political price. If President Bush cannot win a fight to keep security from getting worse than it was before the terrorist attack, it will be a failed presidency and, worse, an at-risk nation.

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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