Revising expectations

Here's a heretical prediction: The Homeland Security Department, at least how it's envisioned, will never come to pass.

The initial obstacles — labor issues, appropriations complications, integration complexities and the general tendency to fear change — are likely to force the administration to reassess the entire concept. The key issue is timing.

If we don't have the legislation passed by Sept. 11, the Bush administration's deadline for obvious reasons, the only other way to force legislators to overcome obstacles and push the bill through is to make it a political issue during the November elections.

But that is unlikely to happen, given the lack of political interest among the general public. Also, it seems unpatriotic to lambaste legislators for taking a methodical approach to such a momentous task, so it won't pass the litmus test of political efficacy.

Why has this grand idea lost its way? In part, it's because the idea is too grand.

The impetus for the department was to bolster security by centralizing and integrating the disparate bureaus and agencies responsible for preventing or reacting to a reprise of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But when it comes to molding the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the 20 or so other offices into one agency, it quickly gets messy.

The administration finds it necessary to rewrite or relax civil service laws and personnel regulations, because the new department will need flexibility. Office of Management and Budget officials mandate systems architecture and standards and expect everyone to follow their lead, even though such Draconian measures have not worked well in the past. And President Bush asks Congress to redistribute the appropriations clout quickly and fairly.

Ultimately, it puts Congress in a tough spot. The folks on Capitol Hill have to be willing to take the heat from employee unions for sacrificing job security. They must act without malice or bias as they hand the purse strings to fellow — or opposition — control. They must fund an expensive and disruptive reorganization in the midst of a recession, absorbing the costs in a budget already in deficit.

I believe our legislators would be willing to put aside self-interest — and constituent interest — for the good of the country, but only if the timing is right. Congress is certain to miss the Sept. 11 deadline, and if Congress cannot garner the necessary votes during the November election season, interest in the issue will slowly fade.

It's still possible that Congress, with a flurry of activity, could enact legislation before the elections. But the administration is likely to end up with a much less ambitious plan than originally conceived, with maybe one major agency and a half-dozen or so smaller groups pulled out of their current departments. As it stands, it's a case of too many obstacles and too few returns.

Arnold is national vice chairman of the Industry Advisory Council and vice president of government programs for E-Gov, which is part of FCW Media Group.

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