- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

I never thought I would write the following words: Congress should slow down, be more deliberative and not rush in its legislative duties. Both the Democratic Senate and the Republican House leaderships have announced that hearings that begin this week on creating the Department of Homeland Security will lead to passage on the floors in each chamber within the next four weeks, and will be reconciled and ready for presidential signature by September 11. Perhaps some bill can be cobbled together at such breakneck speed, but not the bill this country needs.
A building's architectural blueprints can be drawn in a matter of days, but its realization in concrete, steel, glass and wood must take months or even years to stand the test of time. Just so, while the president's submitted bill summary is only two-and-a-half pages long and was weeks in the preparation, the final bill will have to rationalize about $40 billion worth of government bureaucracies, and must be carefully constructed.
The dividends from such a reorganization will not be paid in the first weeks or months. Indeed, there probably will be a dip in efficiencies during the months or first year or two of implementation. With the rewards inevitably so delayed, it is pointless even counterproductive to try to rush construction to save a few weeks or months. While great benefits can be gained from this process if done as rationally as possible, we could do serious long-term damage to the national security by a rushed and shoddy bill.
Yet that is where we are headed, just to gain completion on the symbolic one year anniversary of the attack. (And, I suspect, so congressmen and senators can have a completed bill to wave at their voters before election day.) Commemorative coins are aptly released on anniversaries. But this bill needs to be not symbolic, but substantial; not a campaign braggadocio, but, as Sen. Joe Lieberman aptly put it, "one of the most important things I will ever get a chance to do as a senator."
The sheer challenge of getting it even partly right cannot be overstated. As Brookings' government studies expert Paul Light has recently testified, even the timing of the assembly of agencies must be considered. A dysfunctional agency such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service could drag the new department down if it is added in before the INS is rendered functional. On the other hand, the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation is working so well that it risks being damaged by joining the new department prematurely.
Or consider the management structure of the proposed department as laid out in Title I of the president's bill, which some experts believe reflects an antiquated information technologies structure. Notwithstanding that possibility, the Office of Management and Budget is already busy designing the information technologies architecture for the new department. Congress, in its haste to complete the project, may hesitate to modify Title I merely because it doesn't have time to do a little pushing and shoving with the OMB.
When I was working for Speaker Newt Gingrich, I sat in the room with him as he spent more than 150 hours personally working with technical experts to draft the 1995 Medicare reform bill. It took that long to reasonably understand the full policy implications of many technical provisions. The Medicare bill was complex, but it was like a child's reader compared to the encyclopedic complexity of the Homeland Security legislation.
Beyond the technical challenges are broader policy considerations. The ACLU has complained that the proposed bill would create an agency long on secrecy and short on public accountability. They claim it would muzzle whistle-blowers, lack adequate oversight and threaten personal privacy.
While one would expect the ACLU to overstate these concerns, one would also expect the government to undervalue them. We need to be sure that the bill intrudes in these democratic processes as much as necessary to get the job done, but no more than necessary.
While firm and wise congressional leadership may be able to push past the mindless turf battles that this legislation naturally is generating, a careful drafting of this possibly life-saving legislation needs more than merely firm leadership.
It needs the deepest consideration by thousands of congressmen, staffers, executive branch and private sector experts. Their individual mental labors must then be combined into a coherent whole, and the entire package harmonized to the inevitable political demands of a democracy.
If we are to create a department that is not in need of overhaul on the day it opens for business, Congress should devote the necessary time to get it as right as possible the first time.


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