Why Congress doesn't rubber-stamp homeland defense

Some 88 committees oversee security agencies. Lawmakers have own ideas on terror – and mealybugs.

Despite the bipartisan consensus on the need for a new Cabinet-level department of homeland security, this week has made clear that Congress will be no mere rubber stamper of White House plans.

The reasons are substantive, not merely partisan, and range from the complexity of the task at hand to Congress's long history of overseeing security agencies – and much smaller details.

Consider the pink hibiscus mealybug.

The invasive pest isn't a top priority of international terrorists, or those out to thwart them. But it is a great concern to Florida citrus growers, and the legislators who represent them. They worry that shifting the Agriculture Department's animal and plant inspection service to a new homeland-defense agency, for example, will also shift priorities away pests that can decimate important crops.

"The pressure is going to be on them to look for high-profile agents that can be used in bioterrorist attacks, such as anthrax," says Rep. Adam Putnam (R) of Florida, who serves on both the Agriculture Committee and the Government Reform Committee, which is considering homeland-defense plans. "They won't care much about aphids, ticks, and citrus canker."

While the Bush administration came to support the notion of a Department of Homeland Defense only a week ago, Congress has been working on how to better focus homeland defense for years, including three recent blue-ribbon commissions. Many think they know the issue well; some, very well.

It is no surprise, then, that Congress wants to play more than a bit role in creating a new department that may meld some 170,000 federal employees now scattered over 100 agencies.

Moreover, wresting gavels out of the dozens of committees in Congress that now claim some piece of homeland security – a move that observers see as vital to the new agency's success – won't come easily. Lawmakers have barely begun to consider the difficult turf issues such a simplification involves.

The concerns emerging on Capitol Hill this week cross party lines. Some members say that the president's proposal wraps in too many agencies, many with missions only marginally related to homeland defense. Others say that the FBI and CIA should be roped into the new department; otherwise, they argue, the intelligence lapses that contributed to Sept. 11 will continue.

Within hours of President Bush's announcement last week, the turf battles began breaking out on Capitol Hill.

Disputes range from which committee will draft a law to create the new agency to who in Congress will later oversee and fund its operations. And so far, no chairman is volunteering to give up a say in how the war on terror is waged on American soil.

"You will create an ongoing problem if you create a new Cabinet agency but give 88 subcommittees a direct line into the Cabinet secretary," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation. "That's all the new secretary would do – hear requests from committee chairmen."

Many lawmakers agree that it makes no sense to streamline the executive branch but leave oversight dispersed in Congress. But far fewer agree on who gets to keep oversight authority once the new department is created.

One possibility is to create a committee on homeland security, drawing members from top committees that now oversee related issues.

"This will be the second largest department in the federal government ... second only to Defense. I don't see how we handle it without creating a new committee in each chamber," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee and an early advocate of a Cabinet-level homeland security department.

Leaders in both parties say their goal is to put a department in place by the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 – or by the end of the year. But no one can say when the oversight issue will be settled. Says Mr. Lieberman: "That's another day and a pay grade above mine."

• Francine Kiefer contributed to this story.

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