Turf wars, budget battles hamstring homeland security office

In its persistent, pugilistic efforts to re-educate Congress about the limits of legislative branch authority, the Bush White House has invited a small firestorm of retribution from lawmakers of both parties who are frustrated, for all sorts of reasons, with the White House and its Office of Homeland Security. The net result is that turf wars, lack of communication and consultation, poor preparation, and budget squabbles--all of the ills that the president's homeland security team is supposed to cure within the executive branch--may signal its own comeuppance.

Bush's current posture suggests that with or without Director Tom Ridge, the Office of Homeland Security is headed for a congressional makeover. This week, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers unveiled legislation that would put the entire debate about what critics describe as the toothless, unaccountable Ridge office into congressional hands and create a new Department of National Homeland Security, as well as a "national office for combating terrorism."

The department secretary would be confirmed by the Senate. Swept together under a new umbrella entity would be the Customs Service (removed from Treasury); the Federal Emergency Management Agency (independent, created by executive order in 1979); the Immigration and Naturalization Service's law enforcement and border management (out of Justice); the Coast Guard (out of Transportation); parts of the FBI (out of Justice); and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (out of Agriculture).

The Brookings Institution also thinks that homeland security needs a legal floor. It released a 177-page study on April 30 that argued for a Cabinet-level homeland security agency within the Executive Office of the President, without creating a super-department. Brookings embraced an idea Ridge pushed quietly late last year, with little Cabinet-level or presidential support. The concept is a new border security agency, consisting of the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and parts of the INS and the Agriculture Department.

This is not exactly what Bush envisioned in the heated days following 9/11, but these are changes he may get, largely because the West Wing's favorite theme song so often sounds like "My Way." Bush has shown an affinity for bypassing lawmakers. They have been asked to accept information offered, but not look to Ridge as an expert. Bush handed Ridge a difficult job, under challenging circumstances, with the worst command-and-control organizational structure imaginable, and then turned a deaf ear to suggestions that the White House was well-intentioned but misdirected.

"The Senate is rightly upset about the fact that the Bush administration is so stingy about giving out information," said Paul C. Light, Brookings' director of governmental studies. "I also think they are concerned about the continuing organizational problems that plague homeland security. It's basically a mistake-a-week right now in the executive branch, whether it's INS, or the FBI, or the CIA...I think Congress is aware that organization matters."

In fact, Congress believes that homeland security's organizational future, budget proposals, and policy recommendations must be linked. But Ridge ignored predictions that he would be hobbled by his title, then championed a definitive overall budget request--$38 billion for fiscal 2003--and simultaneously asked lawmakers to wait while his team assembled a set of comprehensive national homeland security recommendations for fiscal 2004 and beyond. That national strategy--10 or 12 chapters long--will not be ready until "late summer or early fall," said Gordon Johndroe, White House Homeland Security Office spokesman. Picture it: Democrats will be tearing into a new presidential strategy report just as Congress wraps up appropriations bills, just as the nation swoons toward the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and just before the make-or-break midterm elections.

The White House, with feet dragging, is playing just a bit of defense. Ridge, a presidential assistant, can brief Congress, after all: After the White House infuriated Congress in a time-wasting dispute over "briefings" versus "testimony," Ridge negotiated an open-Senate, open-press appearance to discuss border security on May 2.

The government may need to be reorganized, including Ridge's office: "At this time, it is premature to say what the final product will be, whether it is a Cabinet-level department, a statutory office or no change, but we are not ruling anything out and will carefully review all legislation," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. The president's executive branch reorganizational proposals may, or may not, be in a full report: "That would be a chapter. That's the way it looks right now," Johndroe said, "and I would just caution that it could change. What if it's determined that maybe the organization shouldn't be a part of the national strategy--maybe that's a separate part because it isn't as tied into everything else? My point is, until it's a done, printed document, anything could change on it."

The president's $38 billion spending request, a number as yet divorced from any Bush policy proposals for 2004 and beyond, could increase, as some in Congress advocate: "We've worked very thoroughly with homeland security and vetted this number, and we think that right now this does represent pretty much all of the domestic homeland security/ combating terrorism measures and programs, but there is a possibility that once the review is done, there could be new programs or things identified that would be needed," Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Amy Call said on May 1.

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