Security in the Shadows

For Tom Ridge, President Bush's homeland-security director, the storm clouds over his relationship with Congress began gathering almost as soon as his appointment was announced nine days after September 11. From the very beginning, a bipartisan chorus was raised about Ridge's lack of political clout and budget authority, not to mention his utter lack of operational power. And from that beginning the White House made clear that Ridge -- as a presidential adviser whose office was created by executive order and not by statute -- would not be allowed to testify before congressional committees. Now, however, that storm has erupted in full force and Ridge has become a lightning rod for all sorts of discontent and grumbling from Democrats and Republicans alike in both the House and the Senate.

Like Vice President Cheney's now-notorious energy policy, Ridge's arguably more life-and-death homeland-security strategy has so far been devised in the dark of night. No list of consultants, private-sector advisers, input-providers, and former high pooh-bahs who've met with Ridge has been made public. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled over administration infighting and bitter turf battles among the scores of agencies whose funding and, in some cases, whose very existence, has been put at stake by this upstart office. On the other hand, some who might have been expected to have had input have been shut out. Former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who co-chaired an influential security commission with another former senator, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, is one of those. The Hart-Rudman U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, which focused heavily on the threat of terrorism seven months before al-Qaeda's attacks, notably recommended the creation of a National Homeland Security Agency. But Hart's attempts to meet with Ridge after September 11 were rebuffed. And from Ridge's own party, security hawk Chris Shays, a Connecticut congressman, complained as early as February that Ridge was inaccessible. ("They've got a good wall up," Shays said.)

Since March, then, Ridge has been in a full-scale constitutional test of wills with Congress. His tormentor-in-chief is 84-year-old Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Not a man who takes being disrespected lightly, the courtly parliamentarian (along with Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the committee's ranking Republican) wrote to Ridge on March 4 politely requesting his appearance at an April hearing. Nine days later, Byrd and Stevens got a response not from Ridge but from White House lobbyist Nicholas Calio, declining the request. Undeterred, the two senators wrote to President Bush. Ten days later, it was Ridge who replied, refusing to testify but proposing instead a ";public briefing."

Both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who seems to want the title of "Mr. Homeland Security," then threatened Ridge with Congress' ultimate weapon. "I'm prepared, if I have to, to ask my committee to subpoena him," Lieberman thundered. Down that road, of course, lies a legal and political struggle at the level of a constitutional nuclear war. But it's almost unthinkable that the confrontation will go that far.

To many it's unclear why the White House has so bitterly opposed allowing Ridge to testify, given the damage it's done the administration on Capitol Hill. "I haven't found anybody who can understand the intransigence on the Republican or the administration's part with regard to Mr. Ridge," Daschle said.

How, then, to explain the White House's stand? For one, the Bush White House -- led, in this area, by Cheney -- is almost religiously devoted to the idea of executive privilege, especially over a pesky Congress. "This is the most aggressive administration in memory in asserting executive privilege," said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution. "You might even say that [Bush] holds Congress in contempt. He and the vice president believe you deal with Congress only when you have to."

Second, the fight also involves Congress's oversight of federal spending. In January, Ridge proposed doubling annual federal outlays on homeland security to $37.7 billion, spread over dozens of agencies. Added to Bush's request for a nearly $50 billion increase in defense spending for 2003, the homeland-security budget threatens to squeeze out other vital priorities (and that's not even considering past anti-terrorism spending, which has characteristically been wasteful, inefficient, and duplicative). Of course Congress, which seems to be falling all over itself to proclaim its devotion to fighting terrorism, would most likely increase, not decrease, Ridge's bloated budget. To put into the public record what the administration is actually proposing, Byrd and Stevens have said they might summon the heads of 46 agencies, each of which has a slice of the homeland-security pie. But Ridge is the only person who sees the whole picture; his testimony, sorting out priorities and explaining strategy and decision making, could come from no one else.

The other part of the policy fight involves the differing conceptions of Ridge's job, and here the security hawks in Congress seem to be winning. Members on both sides of the aisle want to reorganize the federal government to deal with terrorism. Lieberman's proposal, unveiled April 11, is the most radical. It seeks to create a Department of Homeland Security that would combine Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, and other agencies into one gigantic body. It would also establish a White House Office for Combating Terrorism -- sort of a super-spy office that would coordinate intelligence and law enforcement. Until now the White House has resisted the pressure from Lieberman and others, but there are signs that resistance is crumbling. In an April testimony, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels said the administration's homeland-security proposal "may resemble Senator Lieberman's bill." Ridge himself, asked about Lieberman's plan, burbled, "I embrace it enthusiastically."

But this conflict is also an old-fashioned political power struggle. The upcoming congressional contest, and the vote in 2004 as well, could very well revolve around the public's notion of which party -- and which presidential candidate -- has the best handle on homeland security. So far, given Bush's stratospheric poll numbers, it's no contest. Part of the evident thinking of the White House is to maintain that edge by making sure it gets the credit for developing a homeland-security plan. According to the current timetable, it appears as if the White House will release its full-blown national strategy soon, some say as early as June. Whenever it comes out, it will take center stage -- and the White House would clearly like that to happen without a meddlesome Congress emerging from the wings.

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