What's the Rush?

As Republicans continue playing politics -- such as
persuading a Democratic congressman from Louisiana
to register as a Republican shortly before the
election filing deadline on Friday -- Democrats are
returning to Washington Tuesday to talk about national
security issues.

“It's a historic opportunity to enact into law the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission,” Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, told me during the Democratic convention, when he thought Republicans would be joining the Democrats this week. “The report gives us momentum we needed to retain a sense of urgency.”

(Turner, by the way, knows the need for urgency. Whatever work he wants to do on the report has to get done this year, as he opted not to run for Congress again after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay redrew Turner's district lines to cost him his job.)

Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, who serves on the House
Armed Services Committee, was just as impassioned. “I don't think we have any choice,” he told me. “We have to go back and pass legislation and we have to do it this year.”

“Whether it helps or hurts John Kerry is irrelevant,”
he added. “We need to take action.”

And retired Gen. Wesley Clark told a panel on national
security and terrorism at the convention, “The U.S.
people demand the right degree of security at home.
There is no excuse for failing to take action right

The response from Republicans is that the House will
return when it's scheduled to return, after Labor Day.
Its leaders are spending part of this week in Texas,
according to CongressDaily. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert,
Majority Whip Roy Blunt, and National Republican
Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds will
campaign for Republicans challenging Democrats in some
of the seats where DeLay wasn't able to remove
Democrats through redistricting.

Meanwhile, a new report in Time shows that the Democrats' urgency is justified. “This is looking more like the real deal every day,” a top intelligence official told the magazine.

It's worth pointing out that the nation probably wouldn't have had a 9-11 Commission report if the administration had had its way. “The families are the reason why we got a 9-11 Commission,” Meehan told the panel, noting 32 people from his district died that day. If the White House was more concerned about preventing future attacks rather than just trying to cover itself, the commission could have started its work sooner and released its report sooner -- giving lawmakers more time to digest its findings and move ahead with real reforms.

The idea that Congress will have adequate time to
address this issue in September -- along with
contentious, must-pass appropriations bills -- is
ridiculous on its face. Lawmakers haven't been able to
pass much legislation, including an energy bill,
class-action lawsuit reform, a transportation bill, or
even a budget this year. Should Republicans decide to
look like they are doing something about the stalled
economy, that's even less time that will be available
to tackle intelligence issues.

And it's not as though Republicans and Democrats, or
Congress and the administration, will necessarily be
on the same page, either. The intelligence reform
process could well be a slow and partisan one. As Rep.
Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, who serves on the Armed
Services Committee, told me, “While it should be
collaborative, it probably won't be.”

With Congress headed toward a lame-duck session after the Nov. 2
election, some say that that will be the best time for lawmakers to address
intelligence reform. Members plan to spend the
month of October on the campaign trail.) But much of
the intelligence released publicly points to a
possible attack before Election Day -- making a lame-duck session on preventing attacks somewhat meaningless.

If the past is any guide, Congress will still have
plenty of other legislative issues to contend with in
a lame-duck session, so it's not as though the
November calendar is wide open. Furthermore, putting
off intelligence reform until January guarantees that
it will compete with the initiatives of the newly
elected president, whoever he is.

The fact that the 9-11 Commission Report topped the
non-fiction paperback bestseller list in The New
York Times Sunday Book Review
should tell
lawmakers that voters are not only concerned about
this issue; they're willing to invest their own time
and money to learn more about it. If they see that
their representatives aren't doing much about it, they
may have little patience for those lawmakers come
Election Day.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her
column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the
online edition of The American Prospect.