- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

An interesting session at a local think tank brought home what is wrong with government. The discussion was on homeland security and open to the press. The chief discussant was Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and, by his own admission, a “conservative Republican” and strong Bush supporter. Mr. Ervin’s new book, “Open Target,” is an insider’s critique of homeland security, and critique that department he does.

Readers can buy the book and draw their own conclusions. Mr. Ervin and the two other panelists were long on criticism of how the nation has handled homeland security and short on prescription, understandable in that one way to draw attention to a major problem is simply to describe it in detail. Given the jurisdictional mess surrounding homeland security and straightforward but profoundly difficult questions that have no good answer such as “who is in charge,” solutions are not easy to find. In general, the panelists agreed that better leadership and more money were prerequisites, however, to fixing the problems.

As my last column was on this topic, I thought it useful to ask the panelists to comment on the recommendations that appeared in that piece. Believing that September 11 was, in many ways, the traumatic equivalent of the banking failures of the early 20th century and the great stock market crash of 1929, the idea of a homeland security commission modeled loosely on the Federal Reserve System implemented in 1913 and the Securities and Exchange Commission created in 1934 seemed sensible. Otherwise, how else could the competing jurisdictional issues among local, state and federal agencies and offices, each with limited responsibility, authority and accountability, be resolved? The notion seemed to impress a few senators with whom it was shared.

Less dramatic was the idea of placing the planning, preparation and response functions of the FederalEmergency ManagementAgency (FEMA) under the Coast Guard within the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds that an operationallycompetent home was essential to reinvigorating a demoralized FEMA. Finally, the idea of a homeland security corps was raised.

The unanimous response of the panel would have led people to think I had proposed bringing al Qaeda into the DHS. All three politely lectured me on why the worst thing that could be done to the Department of Homeland Security was further reorganization. The plea was that with good leadership and more money, the department could ultimately work out its problems and correct its dysfunctionalities. And here is one principal reason why government is not working.

The flaw underlying DHS cannot be corrected by people and money alone. Because responsibility, authority and accountability are so diffuse, if not missing, and because of our system of federalism and checks and balances, no department with such cross-cutting tasks can work without special powers or external help. The banking and security industries are excellent parallels because without the Fed and the SEC to regulate and oversee, no single department has the authority to exercise and supervise those sectors. If homeland security is of comparable complexity, then perhaps a similar solution for an external regulating and overseeing body works.

This proposal has nothing to do with reorganization of the department, rather the recognition that no department, outside Defense, is ever likely to be given the necessary authority to carry out such jurisdictionally challenged roles. But in the private sector, if a public company performed as poorly as the DHS has done over the past several years, you can bet that there would be mutinies by the shareholders and ruthless management reorganizations in addition to strong action by the Fed or SEC. Otherwise, Enron would be the model, something we can least afford to emulate in an area as vital as homeland security.

We can debate where and how FEMA should be handled. But if operational competence is of principal importance, there are few more competent operations in government than the Coast Guard.

Of course, these recommendations may prove infeasible. However, given that the three panelists were people of intellect, experience and ability, it is interesting that this mild form of “out of the box” thinking was summarily rejected.

To a degree, rejection of new or different ideas is inherent in government. Donald Rumsfeld surely got his share as he imposed “transformation” on the Defense Department. However, if DHS is indeed in the shape that Mr. Ervin describes, and I agree with him especially given the unresolved jurisdictional matters, and we are an “open target,” better leadership and more money will never work by themselves.

Alas, those hackneyed solutions point to a final reason why government is not working. Someday we will learn to think our way clear of problems rather than try to spend our way out of danger, especially as the national wallet gets leaner and leaner.

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