Lawmaker laments homeland defense bureaucracy

Mac Thornberry, a Republican Representative on the House Armed Services Committee, believes the war in Afghanistan has put the United States government at a crucial crossroads in its defense policy. Down one road lies business as usual; down the other awaits real change.

Except for a glimmer of hope he saw this week, Thornberry, a Texas conservative, laments that both Congress and the White House are studiously avoiding the route to change, despite the horrific terrorists attacks of September 11. Those attacks, Thornberry says, exposed the dangerous gap between the adequacy of government preparations for, and the seriousness of, the new threat.

How else can you explain, asked Thornberry in an interview with National Journal, Congress's failure to move on his bill that proposes to put under one roof all the agencies responsible for catching terrorists at the border? Is it the White House's go-slow approach to homeland defense? Is it the Pentagon's pallid Quadrennial Defense Review report, which recommended few reforms, despite repeated promises by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to make major changes in the armed services that would better prepare it to meet the new challenges of the 21st century?

Thornberry's sole glimmer of hope was a statement on Nov. 14 by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Bush's homeland defense chief, that the Administration would call, in next year's budget, for the consolidation of the U.S. Border Patrol (now part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service within the Justice Department), the Coast Guard (now under the Transportation Department), the Customs Service (in the Treasury Department), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (independent), into one new agency. This is what Thornberry and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., had been unsuccessfully pushing for months before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

President Bush's sudden decision to back that plan will help. So, too, will the support from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who told Thornberry that he was recently astounded to see several U.S. agencies managing different lanes at the same Mexican-U.S. border crossing. But Thornberry said he is not at all sure that he, and other advocates trying to improve homeland defense, will win against entrenched bureaucracies.

Why Thornberry, a 43-year-old lawyer-rancher, is so pessimistic about achieving something as simple as the merging of border agencies, much less restructuring the American military, gives an insight into the growing frustration of reformers who thought the recent terrorist attacks would make the need for quick change obvious to everyone.

"It's always easier to do nothing, than to do something," said Thornberry, who has been trying to make reforms since coming out of Texas's Red River Valley to Congress in 1995. "It's hard to overcome inertia to make change, particularly when you're rearranging agencies, because you're taking money and power from somebody and giving it to somebody else." He called Bush's appointment of Ridge an "advance," but Thornberry said the White House homeland defense coordinator is too busy chasing down anthrax and briefing the press and lawmakers to impose change on the bureaucracies penning him in.

Congress, too, has competing bureaucracies, Thornberry said--committees that are reluctant to approve legislation that would take agencies out from under their oversight. "Bureaucratic entrenchment and self-interest in Congress is as bad, if not worse, than it is in the executive branch."

Even if Bush and Rumsfeld were serious when they talked about defense reform before September 11, "they've now got a war to fight," Thornberry said. "So it's hard for them to think about anything else but `What are we going to do today?' The real question in my mind is whether we're going to rearrange the priorities of this government to reflect the new situation. I'm not sure we've done that yet. We in government have added some money to rebuild the Pentagon and compensate victims of terrorists' attacks, but we really didn't cut anything" from the Cold War part of the Pentagon budget.

Nor has Congress or the White House clearly laid out the division of labor between the active-duty military and the reserve forces, particularly the National Guard, when it comes to responding to attacks on the homeland and treating victims. "If we're going to be serious about this war, we've got to change our priorities" within both the civil and military establishments, Thornberry said.

To help Rumsfeld make good on his promises about reforming the military, Thornberry is championing a larger discretionary fund for the Defense Secretary--one that will help him go around recalcitrant generals and admirals and finance the restructuring necessary to give the nation a lighter, faster, more mobile military.

Daring to include a note of optimism, the otherwise pessimistic Thornberry said: "Some of the best and most innovative times have been during wars. We now have an opportunity to get serious about homeland security and reforming the military. The question is: Are we going to take advantage of it?"

When all is said and done, I asked Thornberry, doesn't the answer lie with Bush, as the nation's leader and commander in chief, and not with anybody else? The loyal Republican hesitated, before agreeing in these words: "If you're talking about big scale, then you have to have leadership from the President."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook