Why Labor and Homeland Security Don't Mix

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Bush held a cabinet meeting to discuss homeland security and domestic issues

Think the current showdown over the Homeland Security Department is all about unions? Well, you're almost right.

President Bush continues to push back against Senate versions of HSD legislation because none offer him the ability to hire and fire 170,000 departmental employees at will. He insists this is the only way for efficient and proactive governance — hinting broadly that any detour from this blueprint amounts to a tacit surrender to terrorism. Meanwhile, Democrats — and representatives for the roughly 600,000 civilian Defense Department employees who currently work under existing union labor rules, and whose status could be affected by any changes leveled at new HSD staff — are fighting him tooth and nail.

The President is concerned about a bundle of complex (some say utterly arcane) labor practices that lie, while not exactly at the heart of the HSD legislation, at least in its nearby outskirts. The key to the disagreements? Fear of party-based favoritism and reprisals.

At issue:

Pay scale:While the White House wants a merit-based approach to salaries, unions are worried that such broad control would result in favoritism based on party affiliations and other connections.

Hiring and firing:The President believes he and the Homeland Security secretary should be able to hire and/or fire anyone they want — without explanation — when it comes to matters of national security (i.e. essentially anyone whose job falls under the aegis of Homeland Security.) They claim it currently takes far too long to do either (by their calculations, up to five months to hire and 18 months to fire.)

Job changes: Bush wants the power to re-shape and re-organize job clusters within the HSD. Union leaders worry this freedom could jeopardize pay scales and job security.

There are two ways to read the White House's insistence: Option one: Bush is legitimately concerned about streamlining efforts to make the HSD a lean, mean security machine. Option two: The White House and GOP leaders are terrified by the prospect of thousands more unionized workers in Washington — most of whom would, out of necessity, vote Democratic. So where does the true line of reasoning lie? Probably somewhere right down the middle.

Sure, Republicans aren't thrilled about the idea of adding new Democrats to the voting rolls, but this is an election year, after all, and the President would much rather not make himself — and his party — a target for those pesky charges of "politicizing" the homeland security debate. So there is going to be at least an attempt on the part of the White House to couch this disagreement in terms of safety and proficiency rather than dragging it through the political mud.