Congress is moving closer to approving legislation to create a new government department to help protect the country from terrorism. The House of Representatives debates its bill on Thursday, and the Senate is in the process of completing its own version.
The September 11 terrorist attacks did more than just galvanize the patriotism of Americans, and prepare them for a lengthy and expensive war on terrorism.
The attacks also set in motion a process leading to what will be the largest reorganization of the federal government since 1947, when then president Harry Truman was in the White House.
The stakes couldn't be higher, as President George W. Bush summarized in a recent speech. "I asked Congress to join me in creating a single, permanent, cabinet-level department of Homeland Security, with an over-riding and urgent mission with this primary focus to secure the American homeland."
The new department will employ as many as 170,000 people, combining all or parts of 22 existing government agencies. Even without the FBI and CIA, which will remain independent, the sheer size of the undertaking was daunting to some lawmakers.
Government agencies,their budgets and operations, are overseen by numerous congressional committees. Their respective chairmen are from both the democratic and republican parties. Political interests are a constant undercurrent in the process of developing any legislation, let alone a bill for a major reorganization.
In a hearing of the special committee responsible for crafting the department's founding legislation, Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi defended democrats against allegations they were placing partisan interests above the security needs of the country. "People say that it's just Congress protecting its turf. I say it's not about turf. It's about the constitutional separation of powers," she said. "It's about checks and balances in our government as we deal with issues relating to the budget and to the priorities that Congress has knowledge of and a right to recommend."
In laying out his homeland security strategy, President Bush made clear he wanted things done differently. The attacks of September 11 and revelations that followed showed a need for major changes in the way intelligence agencies cooperated and communicated.
It was former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge chosen by Mr. Bush last October to direct homeland security efforts who enunciated key objectives to Congress. "The Department of Homeland Security will bring homeland security responsibilities under one roof, working toward one goal, and moving in one direction forward. And there will be a single clear line of authority to get the job done," he said. "To paraphrase President Truman the buck will stop there."
Congress, for the most part, has given President Bush what he wanted but there have been some changes. Lawmakers wanted to keep certain agencies the Coast Guard, for example out of the new department. There has also been controversy about civil rights protections for the employees in the new agency. Some are still alarmed by what they see as an attempt to deny Congress its historical "power of the purse" (control over spending). Democratic Congressman David Obey likened the risks to private companies not heeding the direction of their boards. "We have seen many corporations in this country in big trouble because they gutted the ability of their boards of directors to provide strong oversight over the chief executive officers of the company," he said. "We should not make that same mistake in the federal government."
This week, President Bush called democrats and republicans from the House of Representatives to the White House to smooth over remaining concerns before the full House begins final debate on its.
Although overwhelming passage is expected, there will be numerous amendments from both sides of the political aisle. On the other side of the capitol, meanwhile, Senators were finalizing their bill with the aim of a vote before the long congressional recess.
Despite complaints that the plan was being rushed through Congress, there appears to be general agreement that a single bill should be ready for the President's signature on or before September 11 the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.