Democrats are leaving no stone unturned to make the nation feel safer, now that they are in control of both houses of Congress. Or perhaps one should say no piece of paper unused. It is a far cry, however, from campaign rhetoric to national security.
As Washington gets used to the long unfamiliar configuration of a Democratic Congress and a Republican president, the skill of sorting through the rhetoric will have to be honed to a fine art among observers. Not since the first Reagan administration has the political landscape looked so complex.
The very first bill offered in the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress -- the September 11 Commission legislation -- is positively encyclopedic. If the sheer weight in paper of a piece of legislation could make the United States a safer country, we should all sleep like babies tonight. "Today marks a giant leap forward toward a safer and more secure America," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and the new chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, when he unveiled the bill on Friday. Would it were so easy.
But of course, it is not as simple as that. While the legislation does not, as stated, implement all of the commission's recommendations, it does contain some of the commission's ideas that will be detrimental to national security, and some unfortunate additions nowhere to be found in the original report. If this is a sign of things to come, President Bush will soon find need for that dusty implement -- his underutilized veto pen. Fortunately, we are not there yet since the Senate has not produced similar legislation.
Among the things left undone in the House bill is changing the committee structure for the intelligence oversight committees. Also too hot to touch was the recommendation to place all intelligence agencies under the Department of Defense, which according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, "is not on the table."
To their credit, the House Democrats included a provision to make $2 billion worth of homeland-security grants based on threat risk, which means that big harbors such as New York or San Francisco would receive more money than they would have under the current distribution formula.
Far more troubling, though, is the commission's recommendation to inspect 100 percent of cargo coming into the United States for nuclear threats. Not that one should be unconcerned about the danger, but by trying to inspect every single container, we would certainly risk paralyzing U.S. trade, and with it the world's. This is the equivalent of inspecting every single airplane passenger -- a sad and inconvenient fact of life today that constantly ruffles the feathers of travelers who are the most unlikely suspects and wastes a huge amount of time and resources.
And one might ask why no other threats such as chemical or biological? Are we only to be concerned about terrorists smuggling nuclear weapons and dirty bombs? This provision, of course, is a by-product of the Dubai ports uproar, which came and went in Washington as the perfect political storm, helping to knock down the Republican majority.
Meanwhile, the House bill actually seeks to undermine one of the most successful policies of the Bush administration on nuclear proliferation, the Proliferation Security Initiative. Dozens of countries have individually signed up for this program, which was established when John Bolton was undersecretary of state for arms control. The network facilitates cooperation to detect and prevent the spread of nuclear technology.
This excellent example of multilateral cooperation, which has flourished outside the stifling embrace of the United Nations, would, according to the September 11 Commission bill, be subject to approval of the U.N. Security Council, which includes among its permanent members some of the proliferators we're concerned about, Russia and China specifically. This provision was so worrisome that House Republicans hurried to submit a motion to have it struck from the bill.
If House Democrats are truly intent on making the nation more secure, as opposed to simply scoring political points, this legislation will need some major work in conference. Homeland security is like motherhood and apple pie in today's world, and certainly a goal that the White House and Congress share.
Can Washington rise above politics to enhance it? Stranger things have happened at sea, as the British say, but perhaps not much stranger.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times