- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Congress eased back into town this week after — what was at least for some — a truncated summer break. Lawmakers left Washington in late July and were not scheduled to return until this past Tuesday. Yet for those preparing a legislative response to the September 11 commission’s recommendations, business attire and congressional hearings replaced bathing suits and beach trips as many worked a couple of unplanned weeks into August.

Lawmakers don’t give up recess time easily — especially in the summer before the start of the school year. Spouses and kids rely on schedules set early in the year by legislative leaders as sacrosanct and plan family and personal time accordingly. So, when the calendar changes, it’s a big deal; lawmakers need something to show for it.

When Congress decided to interrupt previously planned schedules to address the recommendations of the September 11 commission, it almost guaranteed passage of some kind of legislation on the subject before the congressional recess for the elections. (Indeed, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay laid out a timetable for pre-election passage two days ago.) In an institution where “must do” items are few and far between, the prospect of almost guaranteed passage of legislation revamping homeland and national security, lots of interests want a seat on the bus.

Congressional reorganization is an idea that may get a “seat.” Legislation implementing the commission’s recommendations might overhaul the current structure of the House Homeland Security Committee, creating a new version of the panel.

“If we move legislation on the 9/11 Commission Report, it gives us a great opportunity to revisit the structure of the Homeland Security Committee,” a congressional aide familiar with the issue told me.

The current 50-member select committee (27 Republicans and 23 Democrats, headed by Rep. Chris Cox of California), includes the chairmen of eight other major standing committees.The House may create a Select Committee on Homeland Security, (both the House and Senate have Homeland Security Appropriations panels, but the Senate has no separate authorizing committee). But some observers believe the current structure cross-pressures members between the Homeland Select panel and the other committees they lead. “The current system is less than optimal,” a House leadership aide told me.

The September 11 commission agrees. The current Select committee structure also does not have sole jurisdiction over all homeland-security matters. The September 11 commission recommended that Congress create or designate one authorizing committee for Homeland Security. The department, according to the Commission’s report “now appears before 88 committees and subcommittees.” And the multiple committees of oversight are “the largest single obstacle impeding the Department’s successful development.”

Congressional reorganization is always a tricky subject. Reorganizing the current system is fraught with turf fights, but including the changes in a must-pass bill makes the probability of success higher. And while jurisdictional concerns are complex, given the dangers lurking in the world, Congress must have an effective and centralized Homeland Security Committee.

Legislation implementing the commission’s recommendations may also serve as the vehicle for a host of other year-end provisions stuck in the mire of Senate politics. Republican leaders worry about the prospect of continued Democratic obstruction on a host of critical legislation as Congress moves towards adjournment for the November election.

GOP leaders would like to recess for the election by early-to-mid October. Yet, with a variety of measures still hanging in the balance, including nearly all of the 13 fiscal year 2005 appropriations measures (the 2005 fiscal year starts on October 1), a debt limit increase and the extension of airline terrorism insurance (which expires at the end of the year and could cripple the aviation industry if allowed to lapse), lawmakers welcome must-pass legislative vehicles.

A bill implementing the commission’s recommendations may provide an opportunity to move at least some of these items. “The Democrats in the Senate will do everything they can to stop us from having a lot of Rose Garden signing ceremonies this fall,” a White House aide told me. Yet, legislation implementing the commission’s recommendations (and anything thing included in it) will be tough to block.

Strengthening America’s national-security apparatus in light of the Commission’s recommendations is a high priority as Congress rumbles toward adjournment. It’s one of the few legislative vehicles on the must-pass short list before a mid-October adjournment. And while passing these changes is important to improving national security, it looks like some other legislation — related and unrelated — may also get a seat on the bus.

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