Members of Congress will gather today to give final approval to the new homeland security department, a long overdue reorganization of law enforcement agencies that should eventually result in a safer America. First proposed by Democrats after Sept. 11, the bill evolved into a bipartisan effort that--while at times plagued by bickering and underhanded legislative moves--revolutionizes the government's ability to gather and interpret security information.
With a unified Congress and a president as powerful as ever, sponsors of the bill did manage to sneak in several positions that betray the bill's intent. Under the version passed by the Senate earlier this week, for example, the president would be able to avoid certain civil service requirements. The provision is ostensibly to give more flexibility to a department with a particularly compelling national interest, but its work should not allow the unfair labor practices or the less effective government against which the civil service protects. Republicans have hinted that they will strike provisions--including to one that would suspiciously locate a security research center in the president's home state--from the bill, and the final version will hopefully not include them.
Despite the importance of having a department to consolidate different security agencies, an important subject was noticeably lacking from debate over the past several weeks: the infringement of civil liberties. The constant tension between security and liberty has become almost cliche since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as President George W. Bush's administration has incessantly and sometimes recklessly trotted the globe in search of terrorists. But the threat to Americans' everyday liberties--such as freedom from wiretaps or unjustified detentions--are very real.
The Congressional debate over homeland security lacked any in-depth debate about such concerns. Part of the reason lies with Bush's tactics in setting the agenda. The debate over invading Iraq overshadowed any discussion of civil liberties back home, and while Americans could have been hearing arguments about homeland security since before July, Bush has distracted them. Most of the fault lies, however, with Congressional leaders who were either too callous or too meek to broach the subject of civil liberties.
One of the few bright spots has been Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V. Seven other Democratic Senators joined him in opposing the president's version of the bill, but Byrd was the only one who spoke with the candor and forthrightness necessary for such a monumental decision.
The idea of consolidating security agencies under one authority promises more effectiveness and accountability in preventing terrorism, and the bill that will likely pass Congress today goes a long way to fulfilling that idea. Yet, Congress' unwillingness to ask necessary questions and the president's unwillingness to give more answers tarnishes the legislative success.