Homeland debate heats up

Statement of Administration Policy on S. 2452

The White House and the Senate ratcheted up the volume last week in the ongoing debate over President Bush's proposal to give leaders of the proposed Homeland Security Department more freedom in the hiring, managing and firing of employees.

The White House issued a "deadly serious" veto warning to the Senate that the Bush administration will not back down on its request for management flexibility, which is not included in the Senate's version of the bill that would establish the department.

The official Statement of Administration Policy, released by the Office of Management and Budget Sept. 3, includes "one of the clearest veto threats the president has ever issued," said Richard Falkenrath, senior director for policy and plans at the Office of Homeland Security. He was speaking Sept. 4 at a Brookings Institution forum on the administration's National Strategy for Homeland Security.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the Senate bill, sent a letter Aug. 29 to colleagues highlighting the differences between the president's and the Senate's version of the bill.

In the letter, he said that the Senate is already giving the administration "all the power it needs to create and run an effective, performance-driven department."

But without the flexibilities requested by Bush, the secretary of the proposed department would not be able to pull together the separate structures, cultures and information held by the many agencies that are to be included in the new organization, Falkenrath said. That view has supporters inside and outside government.

"To not give the secretary the management flexibility that the president has called for is asking for failure in this department," Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) said during debate on the Senate bill on Sept. 4.

Bennett, who worked closely with the officials who organized the Transportation Department in the late 1960s, said it took nearly two years before those officials recognized that additional management flexibilities were necessary to consolidate the organizations brought together in the department.

DOT is not the only new organization to have experienced that delay, and the Homeland Security Department cannot afford to waste that time, according to Bennett.

Members of or advisers to government are not the only ones concerned with the direction the Senate is taking in the debate on the proposed department.

The administration has repeatedly stated that the proposed department is not just about reorganizing boxes and agencies, and that is key to their argument, said Philip Zelikow, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, speaking at the Brookings forum.

The proposed department is being formed to provide a new government service, and management flexibility is essential for that purpose, Zelikow said.

Without the transfer and reorganization authorities, among other flexibilities, the secretary will lack the money and the people to address new homeland security issues, he said.

Bush's request for changes to the civil service system is one of the most divisive issues in this debate.

However, as far as the proposed department is concerned, it must be addressed now, even though the question of how to change the system for the entire government may not be answered until later, Falkenrath said.

In the end, "the case is very compelling for allowing the administration to create new [management] mechanisms," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow of foreign policy studies at Brookings.

***

Points of contention

White House officials say that certain parts of the Senate bill to create the Homeland Security Department must be changed or President Bush will veto it. They include:

* Reorganization authority — The bill would not give the secretary of the proposed department the ability to reorganize or consolidate the functions that are to be transferred to the department.

* Transfer authority — The administration asks for the ability to transfer up to 5 percent of each organization's budget under conditions already in place for other departments, such as the Agriculture and Energy departments.

* Personnel flexibility — The administration believes the bill would restrict the secretary from using flexibilities in the civil service system that would allow leaders to move personnel and use award incentives.

* Analysis of threats and vulnerabilities — The bill separates the threat and vulnerability assessment of the nation's critical infrastructures into three organizations.

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