Senate seeks homeland department

Members of Congress last week proposed elevating the Office of Homeland Security to a Cabinet-level department to better fight terrorism, but the Bush administration is lukewarm about the idea, which it says will expand government.

At a hearing April 11, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of a bill to make the office a Cabinet-level department, said homeland security was an issue that would not go away. Elevating the office would provide it with a specific budget and more clout to carry out its mission of plugging the gaps in domestic security.

"The bottom line is if statutory and budget authority are not conferred upon the director of homeland security, the homeland defense of this nation will always be less than it should be," Lieberman said.

Lieberman and other supporters also said that elevating the office to the Cabinet level would eliminate waste and stop turf battles that exist among agencies that have direct authority over components of homeland security.

But Mitchell Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the homeland security office, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, could carry out its responsibilities without adding another bureaucratic layer to government.

"The administration is committed to securing the homeland and keeping Congress appropriately informed on homeland security matters," Daniels said. Ridge can coordinate efforts between agencies without having operational authority over any federal agency, he said.

The measure is gaining popularity in Congress because lawmakers want to establish oversight responsibilities to keep tabs on the office. Ridge reports directly to the president and is under no obligation to consult with lawmakers about the office's actions.

But Paul Light, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that a Cabinet-level department is not a panacea.

"Merely combining similar units will not produce coherent policy, nor will it produce greater performance, increase morale or raise budgets," Light said in prepared remarks he submitted to the panel.

David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, said creating a Department of Homeland Security would carry an expensive price tag.

"This is a long-term effort, which will span years and administrations...and involve billions and billions of dollars," he said.

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