Caution, study required

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

President Bush probably has the better of it in the argument over

granting a new Homeland Security Department more management flexibility than is currently to be found in the federal bureaucracy, but the more such matters are debated, the more

something becomes clear: A great deal about this proposed department is unclear.

There is no guessing about the ideal: We would soon have this thing up and running, and with great efficiency and vigor and concern about constitutional rights, it would afford Americans protections from terrorist-wrought catastrophes to a degree not even

imaginable under current circumstances.

But commentators and politicians of both left and right point to all sorts of issues, not the least of them being the concern of Brookings Institution analysts that the new department could be such a bureaucratic jungle that a long-term effort would simply

be to hack through the underbrush. As for the terrorists, who would have time to worry about them?

Mitchell Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, has written persuasively about the need to free the department's managers to hire and fire more easily than can be done under the current rules for federal employees.

Democratic critics say this would be unfair to federal employees, while disingenuously maintaining that many such freedoms can be found now.

Bush also wants to have it both ways. He says the flexibility is crucial, but that the "basic rights" of workers would stay in place.

Daniels also wants the new department to have the ability to transfer department funds where they are needed instead of the current system that sometimes leads to funds being spent wastefully. That would seem to make sense, although some in Congress fear loss of powers that are constitutionally theirs.

Kate O'Beirne of National Review, who took note in an article of the concern of Brookings analysts, says, too, that as huge as the new 170,000-person department will

be, it will leave out federal offices that now have homeland security duties.

Meanwhile, she writes, the department will have a host of duties unrelated to homeland security.

Some critics rightly worry about the Bush administration's desire for more secrecy in this department than is granted elsewhere in the government.

Here's a thought many are coming to: Slow down.

Although it had seemed imperative that Congress act quickly in order to safeguard American lives, it has become apparent that acting quickly might have no such consequence but could infringe on liberties while creating increased awkwardness in responding to dangers.

Congress needs to do more mulling, and so does the White House.

Birmingham Post-Herald

July 31, 2002