After months of noisy labor, Congress has finally birthed the Homeland Security Act. And what a misbegotten, misshapen whelp it is, the ugly product of a fuss that all along had as much to do with homeland politics as with homeland security.
The idea of gathering some 22 federal agencies that deal with security into a single cabinet-level department makes perfectly good sense. In time, that should facilitate focused cooperation among fiefdoms that have spent as much time protecting their own bureaucratic turf and trying to one-up each other as they have spent in their missions.
But politics, though productive after its fashion, begets all sorts of odd outcomes, and this matter is a classic.
Looking for some quick post-9/11 security bona fides, Democrats pushed the idea of a massive agency-meld. Bush balked at first, but the president's political sharpie, Karl Rove, who can spot an angle faster than a geometry professor, saw how the issue could be used to political advantage.
Bush's legislation was gimmicked to dismantle traditional civil service protections for the 170,000 employees in the affected agencies and give the president authority to bypass union rules and contracts, acting out Republican animosity toward labor unions and toward public employee unions especially. Pro-labor and the beneficiary of union financial and voting support, Democrats were bound to oppose the president's union busting, and when they did Bush effectively nationalized the congressional elections, beating the Democrats with their own idea by making them seem unpatriotic for opposing his own partisan misuse of the concept.
And then, not content to hurry an otherwise reasonably straight-forward bill though the post-election Congress, the House loaded the bill with goodies for special interests.
The pharmaceutical industry, a major financial player in the recent GOP victory, gets liability exemptions, as do insurers and companies that develop anti-terrorism technologies or provide airport security. The bill thus jump-starts the Republican program to tilt the legal system against plaintiffs and in favor of the corporate bar.
The legislation delivers a nice pork chop to Texas by setting up Texas A&M to become a new security research center, and, in a pungently noxious move, restores eligibility for federal security contracts to U.S. companies that create paper headquarters off shore to dodge U.S. taxes. (Note to families: don't try this on your own.)
Most worrisome, although the language is a bit muzzy, the act seems to create a new agency that can troll through the personal data of citizens in search of lurking terrorists - a double whammy against privacy when matched with the recent court ruling licensing the Justice Department to spy on citizens free from the usual civil-liberty protections.
Recognizing that even many in their own caucus were uneasy with these excesses, Republican leadership has promised to reconsider the amendments next year. The clean way to do that would be to strip out all the add-ons and require each to go through the customary hearings and to stand or fall on its individual merit.
In effect, the GOP leadership has said, "Trust us on this." OK, but as Ronald Reagan used to say, trust - but verify.
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta. E-mail: email@example.com.
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