History, hysteria, and homeland security

Posted: Jun 14, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Forget the 10 Americans killed and injured in the crash of an Air Force Special Operations MC-130H in Afghanistan this week. Ignore the more than 200 other military and CIA fatalities and wounded suffered in the fight against al Qaeda thus far. The real victims of the War on Terrorism aren't soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. Nope, the people who are really suffering -- the real casualties -- are in Congress. And George W. Bush doesn't even feel their pain. Think about it. On 9-11, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airliners and turned them into flaming kamikazes, the president, the vice president and a whole bunch of Cabinet officers were whisked away to "safe" locations to ensure that our government couldn't be decapitated. How many congressional members were evacuated? Only 10. All nonessential federal employees were told to evacuate the nation's capital that fateful morning. How many congressmen were deemed "essential?" None. Worse yet, as the nonessential members of Congress sought to flee, they were stymied by the lack of limousines, and the police escorts and hoards of mere citizens jamming the highways, byways and bridges. Then, to add insult to indignity, the Bush administration closed every member's favorite airport -- Reagan National -- and had the temerity to keep it closed for nearly a month. To top things off, some nutcase started mailing anthrax spores, and 50 senators and nearly 5,000 Senate staffers had to evacuate the Hart Senate Office Building and work out of undignified "temporary accommodations" for nearly four months. Now, this heartless administration has delivered the final insult. The president wants to take 169,000 federal employees from 105 executive branch agencies and entities, and re-organize them into four functional divisions under one Cabinet officer in a new Department of Homeland Security. To hear the hysterical howling coming from Congress, you would think President Bush wanted them to give up their "Members Only" elevators in the Capitol. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich, calls the reorganization plan a "damage control document" to "divert attention" from intelligence failures prior to Sept. 11. David Obey, D-Wisc., the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, parrots, "These kinds of slapdash plans are often diversions." Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who authored restrictions barring CIA officers from talking to unseemly characters, thought the Bush proposal was not "the result of a thoughtful process." Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., claims the proposal "does not address the intelligence problems we have." And Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy says he has "concern that Congress was not consulted." Most of that is just baloney. The Bush reorganization plan is anything but "slapdash" and has nothing to do with "diverting attention" from anything. Reps. Conyers and Obey have George Bush confused with their crony, William the Warrior, who tried to distract people from his grand jury testimony about a dalliance with a White House intern by firing off 75 cruise missiles. And if Sens. Torricelli and Shelby believe a more "thoughtful" or more far-reaching reorganization plan is needed, where is theirs? Unusual as it may seem, the only critical comment that makes any sense at all is Ted Kennedy's. He's right. Congress wasn't consulted -- for the very same reasons Harry Truman didn't waste a lot of time "consulting" with Congress before he submitted his proposal to reorganize America's defense establishment. Truman knew then what President Bush knows now -- the Congress has its own mess to clean up. On Feb. 26, 1947, when President Truman submitted his draft of a bill to unify the U.S. defense establishment, the 79th Congress had 41 standing committees in the House and 33 in the Senate, most of which claimed some jurisdiction over the armed forces of the United States. Indeed, two days before the legislation was sent to the Hill, a New York Times headline blared, "Receipt of Bill From Truman Will Put Senate Committees in Jurisdictional Clash." Yet, despite the tremendous controversies he created (and lost) over the fate of the Marine Corps and naval aviation, Truman's plan -- essentially intact -- became the law of the land just five months later on July 26, 1947, as the National Security Act. Equally important, by the end of the following year, the 80th Congress had reorganized the legislative branch of our government into 15 standing committees in the Senate and just 17 in the House. And perhaps not coincidentally, Truman asked Congress that year to approve a federal budget of $37.5 billion -- almost to the dollar the amount President Bush wants for Homeland Defense. Now, 56 years later, Congress has divided the responsibilities for oversight of every aspect of Homeland Defense among 88 committees and sub-committees. The question isn't whether consolidating the functions of Homeland Defense into one department is a good idea. Anyone who has ever "task organized" a military unit to accomplish a mission or formed a "business unit" to achieve a particular commercial objective knows that what we have now is a disaster. The real issue is whether the 107th Congress is politically mature enough to set aside petty partisan differences and personal ambitions to serve the common good. We can only hope.