Person of the Week: Tom Ridge

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LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Director of the Office of Homeland Security Tom Ridge

As the dust clears from the Senate vote creating a Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department, Tom Ridge is poised to take on one of the most critical and politically risky jobs in Washington's history — and to head up the second largest federal agency after the Pentagon. Despite his new clout, the department will take months, if not years, to create — time that critics say the country just doesn't have. For his role at the center of this sweeping reorganization of the federal bureaucracy, the former Pennsylvania governor is our Person of the Week.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]There's a whole infield of hurdles waiting to be jumped, not the least of which is the enormity of the task at hand. While the White House insists the 170,000-person department will be up and running in one year, some General Accounting Office experts estimate the massive overhaul could take several years to finalize. In fact, if President Bush fails in his 2004 re-election bid, it's quite possible Ridge will never get the chance to take on his new role.

Then there's the departmental budget to consider: Because Congress failed to approve spending bills before the start of the fiscal year (on October 1st), the HSD, along with virtually every other federal endeavor, is operating under an assumed budgetary outline. There are sure to be battles — perhaps largely symbolic, given that come January, the GOP will have control over both houses of Congress — over exactly how much money is appropriated to which security measure. There are also concerns among Democrats and Republicans over several last-minute provisions tacked onto the HSD bill, including one (which raised particular hackles) that provides Texas A&M University — a favorite of retiring Senator Phil Gramm — special consideration for the creation of an academic homeland security research center.

And last but not least, there will also be thousands of applications from well-connected lobbyists, all of whom are connected with multi-national technology firms, and all of whom want a piece of the action from Washington's newest cash cow. The government has pledged at least $500 million in grants for homeland security research so far, and companies are lining up to line their pockets.

That's all for later, though. For the victorious White House, none of the what-ifs and don't-forgets mattered in the hours of triumph immediately following the Senate's vote. Calling in from NATO meetings in Prague, President Bush expressed his pleasure, saying, "Setting up this new department will take time, but I know we will meet the challenge together." If he is chosen to take the helm of the new department, Tom Ridge will remember those words — he will face challenges too daunting to meet on his own.