Freedom Line

...the Lieberman bill falls short on budget flexibility. It allows the Department of Homeland Security less budget flexibility than the Department of Agriculture...


For the Homeland;
Congress must give new department more flexibility

By Representative Rob Portman

It now has been more than three months since President Bush sent Congress his bold proposal to create a new Department of Homeland Security, and more than six weeks since the House passed its version of the legislation. The House bill kept to the president's basic outline: merging 22 different agencies and 170,000 employees into one team with a clear mission to protect our homeland from terrorist threats.

Now, the Senate has taken up its proposal. While there seems to be widespread agreement on the need for a new multi-agency department, fundamental differences separate the Senate version from both the House bill and the president's proposal. These differences involve important questions about whether the new secretary will have the personnel, organizational and budget flexibilities to make this massive reorganization work. What is at stake is whether the new secretary will be able to effectively merge the agencies and put the right people in the right job, at the right time and hold them accountable.

If the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, were to reach the president's desk without these flexibilities, the White House has indicated that the president would be forced to veto it. He should. Without these flexibilities, the new department will be a conglomerate of existing bureaucracies without the ability to respond to the deadly and unpredictable threat of terrorism.

Perhaps the most controversial of these flexibilities lies in the critical area of personnel. The House bill carefully preserves important existing worker protections while recognizing the inadequacies of the antiquated civil service rules to the task at hand. Similar flexibilities have been provided at other agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, General Accounting Office, IRS and earlier this year, the new Transportation Security Agency. Lee Hamilton and Warren Rudman, leaders of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, put it well. "[T]he key to making the new Homeland Security Department successful will be having an agile, flexible personnel system... [T]oday's civil service system has become a drag on our national security." The House bill finds the right balance by carefully protecting existing worker rights, while granting limited flexibility where it is needed the most in the areas of hiring, firing and promotions.

Without such limited flexibilities, the department would be unable to respond quickly to new and emerging threats against the United States. Suppose, two weeks before the football season, the government acquires intelligence indicating a terrorist threat at a football game in New Orleans, but they don't know which game. In response to this new information, the secretary concludes that 400 highly specialized agents, pulled from five different entities within the department and from 10 cities throughout the country, should move into New Orleans within 48 hours. Under our existing civil service system, which the Senate bill perpetuates, reassignments such as this can take months, be subject to complicated collective-bargaining agreements, and fail to compensate the specialists for their efforts. The result: Either the terrorists beat the government to New Orleans, or the games must be canceled because the site cannot be adequately secured. This kind of inflexibility in the face of an agile enemy is unacceptable.

The Lieberman bill not only relies on antiquated and arcane civil service rules, but it would keep the new secretary from accomplishing the much-needed reorganizing and reallocating needed to make the new department work. It would preclude, for example, even the most basic consolidation of federal inspectors at our ports of entry. The Senate version requires the secretary of Homeland Security to get a change in law before making a change to the Department's organizational structure. Yet, when other agencies were created, including the Departments of Energy and Education, they were given the authority to make such changes. It makes no sense to deny such organizational flexibility to the agency where it will be needed the most.

Finally, the Lieberman bill falls short on budget flexibility. It allows the Department of Homeland Security less budget flexibility than the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Health and Human Services. In a terrorist emergency, the instant deployment of equipment and personnel is critical. In such instances, the secretary of Homeland Security needs the freedom to make limited transfers of funds within the department without having to go to Congress to ask for a new appropriations bill. The president only asked for the ability to move up to 5 percent of the funds in an appropriations account to meet unexpected needs. The House bill gave him 2 percent. The Lieberman bill gives none.

As it debates homeland security legislation, the Senate has an opportunity to move quickly to better protect our nation. By including these limited but critical personnel, organizational and budget flexibilities (as was done on a bipartisan basis in the House), the Senate can send a bill to the president that he can responsibly sign — one that creates a new Department of Homeland Security that can effectively carry out the critical mission we have given it.

U.S. Representative Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio and served on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. The article originally appeared in The Washington Times on September 30, 2002.

[Posted October 3, 2002]

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