House homeland chairman takes analytical approach

If Congress were high school, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., would be the smart kid. And he'd be the editor of the school newspaper, but not the class president.

During his 14 years in the House, Cox has earned a reputation for his thoughtful, cerebral approach to just about everything. (Not many members casually weave the word "tendentious" into an interview with reporters.) But this reputation has been both an asset and a liability. While Cox was initially seen as a rising star, some colleagues say his intellectual ways have hampered his political climb and marred his two runs for speaker in 1998. Yet those same analytical inclinations make him well suited for his latest assignment as chairman of the new House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

As head of the select committee, which the House created on the opening day of the 108th Congress in January, Cox is studying up on the sprawling topic of homeland security. He's gauging the country's security threats, while also trolling for office space and massaging egos, much as new Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is doing. But while Ridge relies significantly on his political skills to navigate rocky homeland terrain, Cox is likely to analyze, analyze, analyze his way through.

That's what Cox did in 1998, when he headed the high-profile congressional investigation into U.S. technology transfers to China. Working seven days a week for six months, he chaired the select committee that found that China had obtained highly sensitive U.S. military technology. The panel prepared a report (widely called the Cox Report) critical of the Clinton administration, and approved its findings unanimously in December 1998, amid the Clinton impeachment frenzy. And Cox won praise for his careful bipartisan efforts.

"He worked with me, and everything I asked him to do, he did," said Rep. Norman D. Dicks, D-Wash., the ranking member on the select committee on China. "He kept the political stuff down, and he tried to focus on the problems." Dicks said House leaders couldn't "have named a better chairman" for the Homeland Security Select Committee.

Rick Cinquegrana, who was chief investigative counsel to the China panel, described daily morning meetings in which Cox would fire off a 10-item To Do list to the staff and expect a progress report the following day. "I stopped going to the meetings so frequently, just to survive," Cinquegrana said, only half joking.

Cox, 50, graduated in three years from the University of Southern California with a double major in English and political science and then went on to Harvard University, where he earned both law and business degrees at the same time. He practiced law before joining the Reagan White House counsel's staff in 1986.

Cox's studious, self-reliant manner may explain why he seems uncomfortable asking for political favors. Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman who was first elected to the House in 1988 along with Cox, noted that Cox rarely asks for pet projects, and "when he does, he's almost embarrassed."

But asking for-and being owed-favors has its benefits. Cox encountered that reality when he twice flirted with a run for speaker in late 1998-after both Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston fell from grace-but couldn't rally support fast enough. A reliable conservative, Cox has served since 1995 as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, a low-key group that develops policy statements on issues facing the party. Yet he has never moved higher in the leadership ranks.

"I was struck by the fact that Chris's leadership hopes didn't get far," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who was in Cox's class at Harvard Law School. "He was a little too cerebral.... For a top leadership position, it's the same kinds of qualities that make you popular in high school. If they'd given a test for leader, he'd have been the leader."

But for homeland security, cerebral is in. In an interview with National Journal, Cox characterized his new job as difficult "in every way." Then he listed his top-four challenges: sorting through the threat information to determine oversight priorities; moving ahead quickly; merging the homeland priorities of the select committee's 50 members; and mediating turf battles, especially among the eight chairmen of other House committees who sit on his panel. Cox is also responsible for developing a road map to make his select committee permanent in the next Congress.

As he begins his tutorial on homeland security, Cox touts a recent report by the Markle Foundation on data systems as required reading, and he has met with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to talk intelligence and with Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina to talk merger management. He's also assembling an advisory board. In addition, Cox has talked with Ridge and with Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, both of whom are former House members.

Hutchinson characterized his relationship with Cox as "warm," but acknowledged that "obviously [the select committee] will scrutinize our operations closely." He noted that Cox "can be a tough taskmaster."

As his select committee gets up and running, Cox will quickly become the congressional go-to guy on homeland security. When the Sunday chatter shows need a member of Congress to talk about homeland security, his will be among the first names pulled from the Rolodex. "He can take a very conservative position and turn it into something that is thoughtful and moderate and meaningful," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Not surprisingly, Cox is quite focused when talking about homeland security policy. "We must be very selective in choosing our oversight targets, because we can't be everywhere," he says. He preaches prevention as his top priority for the Homeland Security Department. He's hired former CIA Deputy Director John Gannon as his staff director to give the select committee, which will have a staff of 90 and a budget of $11 million, intelligence-gathering and investigative heft.

Cox plans to oversee both the department itself and its relationship with other federal, state, and local agencies. He wants to ensure that Congress takes the long view.

"We've got to keep our eye on the ball, rather than lurch from crisis to crisis, or from threat level to threat level," Cox said. "We've got to see the construction through to fruition." He added: "We are at a critical, formative stage of the department. The organizational decisions that are made this year will profoundly influence the direction of the department for decades to come."

Although Cox hasn't worked before with the select committee's ranking member, Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the two rode on the train together to the House's bipartisan retreat in West Virginia a few weeks ago and worked through the ground rules for their panel. "I was pleased Chris was open to the suggestions I made, even if he didn't agree with every one of them. But he included most of them," Turner said.

Cox and Turner talk daily when they're both in Washington. "I think he's very much aware that the minority will inherently have different points of view," Turner said. "I think he respects the position that those views need the opportunity to be heard."

For starters, Democrats want their calls for more homeland security funding to be heard. They are eager to avoid taking a hit over the issue in the 2004 election, as they did in 2002. But Democrats aren't Cox's only problem. He also faces tensions from within his own party.

The eight committee chairmen whose jurisdictions overlap with homeland Security-including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis.-sit on the select committee. "There are a lot of people who are still not comfortable with the creation of the [select] committee," says Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the panel. "Those turf battles have not ended."

Some House chairmen are already protecting their prerogatives against any possible encroachments by Cox's panel. A brouhaha recently ensued when some publications were labeled "House Committee on Homeland Security" instead of "Select Committee." Another dustup occurred when some chairmen fretted that defining jurisdictions now for the select committee's subcommittees would set a precedent for jurisdictions later on for the permanent committee. Cox placated the chairmen with an assurance that the current definitions would not apply to the permanent committee.

Cox expects this year's skirmishes to be manageable, because sitting on the select committee actually expands the chairmen's fiefdoms by giving them authority over the entirety of homeland security. But the quasi-honeymoon will end on September 30, when the select committee is required to complete its blueprint for a permanent committee. "That will make the next Congress challenging in ways that this one isn't," said Cox, whom Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., plans to keep on as chairman of the permanent committee.

Cox enjoys the support of Republican leaders now, but Dicks suggests that the chairman will have to be careful if he wants to keep that support. "The challenge for Chris is, we should be having really tough oversight hearings, but I'm sure the administration isn't going to like that one bit," said Dicks, a member of the Homeland Security Select Committee. "He's going to have problems with the Republican leadership in the House. They're not going to want to hear a steady drumbeat of criticism."

Cox plans to move two bills this year-one that makes technical corrections to the legislation that created the new department, and another that makes more-significant changes to that measure. He wants to complete both before the August recess to avoid election-year politicking. "We will legislate as necessary next year, but we're trying to put ourselves in a position where that won't be necessary," he said.

Thornberry says he worries that given the time and turf pressures, as well as Congress's tendency toward entropy, lawmakers could squander their window of opportunity to remake the legislative and executive branches around homeland security.

This same window applies to Cox's career. If he successfully works around those pressures, he'll acquire significant policy and political capital. "Chris Cox is one of [the Republicans'] front-line people to convince the American people that they're on top of this," Ornstein said. "If he does well, you're going to have a lot of Republican partisans, including campaign types, who will be very grateful to him."

And after 17 years in Washington, Cox is reaching a point, say some of his friends, where he'll soon want to decide what to do next. In Frank's view, moving up the ladder in the House is an opportunity that's come and gone for Cox.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who also came to the House with Cox in 1988, said Cox might instead explore a Senate run, a judicial appointment, or an administration post. President Bush had already eyed Cox for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit back in 2001, but Cox withdrew his name rather than face a nasty confirmation battle in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Over the years, Cox has also considered running for the Senate.

Cox demurred when asked about his future ambitions. He's focused on his current gargantuan assignment, he said. Still, he noted that the benefit of being in the House is that he has to make decisions only in two-year increments. "That's sort of long-term planning," Cox said when asked about what's next, "and I find it hard to do that. Every House member enjoys the luxury of being able to make a free choice as to whether to run again next time."