...the Lieberman bill falls short on budget flexibility. It allows
Department of Homeland Security less budget flexibility than the
Congress must give new department more flexibility
By Representative Rob Portman
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
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
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.
Representative Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio and served
on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. This article
originally appeared in The
Washington Times on September 30, 2002.
October 3, 2002]
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