- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

With only three weeks left in the current session, Congress has a full plate war with Iraq and domestic issues. But a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is of utmost importance. We are in a long war against terrorism on two fronts, and considerable success has been achieved on the overseas front. However, until the department is established real progress cannot be made on the domestic front.
The most difficult problem, deciding which agencies to consolidate within DHS, has been resolved. FEMA, the Coast Guard and INS have been correctly placed within the new department. Having made these momentous decisions, the Congress cannot decide how much managerial flexibility to grant the new secretary of homeland security. Several Democratic senators are trying to curtail the president's authority where national security is at stake. For two decades, presidents have had such authority. Former presidents have been able to make exemptions for certain agencies such as the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency. This same authority has been extended to the Secret Service, Air Marshals at the FAA, and the Customs Service. Since DHS by its very nature involves security, the same authority should apply here. More than half of the government's 1.8 million civilian employees are currently outside the federal labor-management system and the sky isn't falling. Ironically, many reassigned agencies would have to revert to their former outdated status.
The most difficult problem I encountered in 50 years of service was integrating civilian employees into new organizations. The most time-consuming and frustrating problems resulted from trying to adhere to arcane civil service regulations. It took months to hire civil employees. It was even more difficult to move them, even when incompetence was not involved. To put a square peg into a square hole, I was required to keep a daily log of reasons. Instead of exercising managerial flexibility, I was put on trial.
Civil service regulations and collective bargaining rights by unions are two sides of the same coin. When a manager tries to bend outmoded regulations to get a job done the employee resorts to getting help from his union. Fifty years ago, these regulations and union support were justified; however, times have changed and discrimination against minorities is no longer a major problem. Besides, the makeup of the work force has changed. Batteries of typists, file clerks and IBM card punchers have been replaced by middle managers relying on modern computers and software. Nevertheless, time-worn issues are still brought before boards, where legalistic process invariably takes priority over substance. Many alleged grievances are as minor as they are ridiculous, such as use of a radio at a work site, cancellation of an annual picnic, or whether jeans or shorts can be worn in the office. Today, 30 collective bargaining agreements are backed by 17 unions. These unions are exerting pressures on a handful of Democratic senators. The Department of Homeland Security can't protect us from future terrorist attacks if it follows a 9-to-5 work day and is fixated on frivolous complaints. Our security is threatened, and we cannot allow business as usual to prevail. The public good must take precedence over private interests.
Merging more than 170,000 people from 22 agencies comprising 17 sets of procedures and seven different payrolls is a gargantuan undertaking. The new secretary of homeland security's work will only have begun when personnel have been moved and placed under his control. He will then have the daunting task of merging 22 disparate cultures into a cohesive whole. Faced with this challenge, he must not be hampered by the need to comply with existing regulations and forced to spend countless hours dealing with employees' appeals to unions.
Having come so far, the Senate should not further delay passage of the bill over the issue of personnel management flexibility. Another major terrorist attack is not only possible but probable, and this time with weapons of mass destruction. Prompt enactment of the bill could help prevent such an attack, and if it occurs, allow for a swift recovery. Congress should enact a law that can be reconciled with the president and obviate the threat of a veto. To bridge the gap, a sunset clause could be enacted to require that personnel policies be thoroughly overhauled after several years. Congress has finished 90 percent of the job, but the remaining 10 percent, especially personnel-management flexibility, could spell the difference between success and failure. This issue is not, as several senators have said, trivial. It is pivotal and definitive. The new secretary of homeland security must not be prevented from getting the organization off the ground. Otherwise, Congress will be held accountable to the citizens of the United States for failing to have acted properly and promptly.

Edward L. Rowny is former ambassador, retired Army lieutenant general and special adviser on arms control to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

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