In a bid to fulfill campaign promises, House Democrats are bringing to the floor – without new hearings or, perhaps, even the possibility of amendment – a sweeping bill to implement more of the 9/11 commission recommendations.
The bill includes new directives for allocating more homeland-security resources on the basis of risk and threat assessment, requiring inspection of all sea and air cargo, and adding funding for the interoperability of first responders. It also moves up reporting deadlines for the department of Homeland Security on work to improve aviation security, terrorist trafficking, port security, and a system to track foreign visitors.
"Let us be the Congress that strongly honors our responsibility to protect the American people from terrorism," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her acceptance speech last week. On the eve of last November's elections, then-minority leader Pelosi promised that Democrats would implement all the 9/11 commission recommendations in their first day in office.
But it leaves out key provisions of that prestigious panel that were considered and rejected in the GOP-controlled Congress:
•It does not take up panel recommendations to declassify the top line of the intelligence budget.
•It would not shift covert paramilitary operations from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Defense Department.
•It skirts the lead recommendation of the 9/11 commission for members of Congress: to dramatically reduce the number of committees that claim oversight over homeland security.
"In only their first few days in the majority, House Democratic leadership has already fallen short on the key security promise they made to the American people," chided Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the Committee on Homeland Security. "Republicans have already enacted an overwhelming majority of the recommendations, and the opening of the 110th Congress was a terrific opportunity to finish the job. Unfortunately, it is amounting to nothing more than a missed opportunity."
Others take a more optimistic view. "The 108th Congress passed half of the 9/11 commission reforms. The 109th Congress did nothing. The 110th Congress seeks to finish the job and pass all the remaining reforms," says Timothy Roemer, a former 9/11 commissioner.
He praised Pelosi for creating a new subcommittee in the House Appropriations panel to include representatives of both authorizing and spending committees. "We recognize that congressional oversight is one of the most difficult reforms yet and one of the most important. It's a very important step to tie intelligence oversight to the budget," he adds.
A key recommendation of the 9/11 commission was to allocate limited homeland-security resources by setting "risk-based priorities," rather than using a formula based on population or political clout. Democrats protested that rural states, such as Wyoming, were awarded bigger grants per capita than target cities like New York and Washington in fiscal year 2006.
"Hard choices must be made in allocating limited resources. The US government should identify and evaluate the transportation assets that need to be protected, set risk-based priorities for defending them, select the most practical and cost-effective ways of doing so, and then develop a plan, budget, and funding to implement the effort," said the panel, known officially as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, in its final report in 2004.
In a nod to the 9/11 commission recommendation to streamline congressional oversight, House Democrats are creating the House subcommittee that includes both appropriators and authorizers. But leaders of the Department of Homeland Security still appear before dozens of congressional panels.
"Gov. Tom Ridge [former secretary of Homeland Security] estimated that he spent at least 40 percent of his time, maybe more, testifying before Congress. The number of committees with oversight has been reduced from 80 to 55," says Al Felzenberg, former spokesman for the 9/11 commission.
"Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important," said the 9/11 commission in its final report. "Few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives."
Meanwhile, the Senate is also planning to take up a bill to implement the 9/11 commission's recommendations as one of its first pieces of legislation in the new Congress. This will include enhanced screening of containers and cargo in ships and planes at the point of origin, improved security at chemical and nuclear plants, and more resources for first responders.
The bill also calls for greater diplomacy and programs for "enhancing the authority of moderates and undermining violent extremists in the Middle East." And it would call for securing "loose nuclear materials" that terrorists could use to build nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.