Steve Chapman

TSA is the tip of the iceberg. Republicans talk about radically downsizing the federal government, and Rick Perry even proposed to abolish three entire departments. But history tells us that Republican presidents don't close departments; they create them. (Ditto for Democrats.)

Ronald Reagan never followed through on his pledge to kill the Education Department. Instead, he signed a bill establishing the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush insisted we needed a new bureaucracy to protect the nation from attack -- which we used to assume was the job of the Defense Department. So the Department of Homeland Security came into being, with jurisdiction over everything from guarding our borders to combating counterfeiting.

It was justified as a way to consolidate and coordinate the functions of numerous government bodies with overlapping or complementary tasks. You would expect such consolidation to save money by minimizing duplication.

You would expect that, I mean, if you were born yesterday. If you have been around long enough to be familiar with the ways of Washington, you would expect nothing of the kind. DHS started out with some 170,000 employees and now has more than 200,000. Its budget ballooned by 40 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 2003 and 2012.

Thanks in part to helpful guidance from Congress, the department has funded programs that address no plausible threat. Cato Institute policy analyst David Rittgers noted that it gave $100,000 to a lightly populated Ohio county for a hazardous materials trailer and truck, which the county later sold, deeming it a waste of money. It provided tiny Bennington, N.H., with $6,500 for chemical weapons suits.

It's all a bit much, but in the age of terror, there is no such thing as excessive security. So TSA and DHS will go on finding ways to justify their existence. Threats come and go, but threat responses last forever.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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