Davis: First do no harm

Provisions in the legislation would create new layers of unnecessary government authority

The Senate wrapped up a debate last week on its version of legislation to implement various recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that never became law. Most of the debate and media attention thus far have centered on the long-simmering issue of balancing national security interests against the rights of government employees to unionize. But the bill has other provisions, although perhaps not as ready-made for political rhetoric, that deserve attention and demand a sense of balance.

I’m referring specifically to language dealing with privacy and infrastructure protection.

First, privacy. The Senate bill continues to muddy and confuse understanding about how federal agencies should manage information, making a bad situation worse. In addition to having chief information officers, as we now have governmentwide, the legislation would establish positions for “privacy and civil liberties officers,” “privacy officers” and “civil liberties officers” in various agencies. The bill would also grant new subpoena authority to the Homeland Security Department’s chief privacy officer. That authority would subject companies to new federal enforcement authorities and duplicate existing ones at the Federal Trade Commission,  Federal Communications Commission and Department of Health and Human Services for example.

That is not good government. It is just more government.

The stated goal of those provisions is to protect privacy, but the consequence of enacting them would be to create additional and unnecessary layers of government. More is not better here. More is simply confusing, inefficient and counterproductive.

Second, infrastructure protection. The Senate sponsors appear eager to leave their fingerprints on initiatives already under way to improve coordination between government and industry in their efforts to safeguard our country’s critical infrastructure. Specifically, the Senate bill would establish new national preparedness standards and create a new critical infrastructure list. Those new provisions would supplant long-standing efforts of DHS and the private sector to protect our critical infrastructure, 90 percent of which the private sector owns and operates. Congress should allow those ongoing efforts to succeed rather than rushing forward with new and different statutory requirements that will force government and industry to start from scratch.

The House already passed its version of legislation to implement the 9/11 Commission’s remaining recommendations. The next stop is conference negotiation. As members work to meld the two bills together, conferees should pay particular attention to the privacy and critical infrastructure provisions to make sure the final bill does no unintended harm.

We saw a breakdown in information sharing during the 2001 terrorist attacks and again after Hurricane Katrina. The federal government has a long way to go toward sharing information effectively with all levels of government and the private sector.

I’ve spent my career trying to remove artificial barriers and eliminate redundant government structures that do nothing to improve security, procurement, privacy or information sharing. Provisions in the 9/11 legislation add bureaucracy and rules all in the name of “doing something more.” I hope we will strike a balance between privacy and security, regulation and efficiency, control and sharing. Many times, less is more. This is one of those times.

Davis (R-Va.) is the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.


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