Homeland Security: Spare Us the Details

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It's a program without a clear definition, without a budget, and without an organizational chart.

Homeland security at this point has only a leader, (Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge), an ardent sponsor in George Bush, and a cause--to make sure the horror of Sept. 11 is never repeated. The rationale for setting up a homeland defense organization has long been established. Numerous studies have warned that the United States doesn't have a coordinated capability to deal with terrorism. Training exercises over the years have exposed weaknesses and squabbling among federal, state and local officials. But not much in the way of concrete action has yet gelled. "Everyone recognizes the importance of the need to create a better homeland security structure," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tells me. "But I don't know if anybody has concluded what we should be doing."

Congress certainly hasn't. The House and Senate have only begun to wrestle with how they might shuffle their organizations to support homeland defense. Democrats and Republicans in the House have appointed task forces to begin mulling homeland defense. House Speaker Dennis Hastert took a working group he had formed earlier this year on terrorism and has converted it into an intelligence panel subcommittee on homeland defense. That will likely serve as a place holder until a permanent committee might be established.

But what a permanent committee might look like is up in the air at this point. The politics behind setting one up will be fierce. To be effective, Ridge will need an organization under him along with a budget and committees in Congress to authorize the funds. Or he'll need to be able to control parts of other cabinet agencies' budgets. Daschle and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott have been talking to each other about establishing a super committee on homeland defense. But setting up a committee with the power to authorize funding will be difficult. There are at least seven committees in the Senate, for example, that would now have jurisdiction over parts of homeland defense. Those seven committee chairmen would have to be convinced to give up slices of their jurisdiction to a new super committee. "The bureaucratic battles are obvious," says a Republican senator who sits on one of those seven committees. "No one wants to give up any power."

Lott thinks he can win his side to a super committee. "This is not a time for turf consciousness," he tells me. "This is a time for action." But Democratic and Republican leadership sources say that Daschle is having more problems in convincing his caucus to agree to a new super committee. The reason: Daschle's Democratic chairmen just got their chairs as a result of last spring's legislative coup. They're in no mood to give up jurisdiction this early.

The other political hot potato is who will serve on this new committee. Daschle and Lott are under growing pressure from their caucuses to appoint the chairmen and ranking minority members from the affected committees to be members of the new committee. That would lead to deadlock, Republican and Democratic leaders privately agree. "You'd end up having chairmen with their ego problems trying to deal with each other," says a GOP senator. Lott would rather pick other members for the panel who have some expertise in the subject.

Good luck. A lot of elevated rhetoric has been coming out of Congress with promises to rise above politics and cooperate in this time of crisis. But when it comes to power and perks on Capitol Hill, count on most members to return to sea level.