By Richard S. Dunham It has been a pathetic year for leadership on Capitol Hill. Already into the federal government's 2003 fiscal year, Congress has approved zero -- yes, zero -- of the 13 appropriations bills to fund the government for the next 12 months. That has never happened before. It's an embarrassing failure for bipartisan "leaders," who seem far more interested in playing political chicken (or is it electoral roulette?) than doing the job voters pay them to do: Make the tough decisions to keep the government running and guard the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
One congressional failure, however, is so monumental that it dwarfs the unprecedented budget meltdown. It's the yearlong stalemate over the creation of the new Homeland Security Dept. Across the country, beyond the supercharged political world of Washington, Americans have good reason to ask why the politicians can't get something this basic -- and important -- done.
It's a very good question. The bottom line is that Congress and the Bush Administration have been willing for far too long to sacrifice homeland security on the altar of political security.
HIRE AND FIRE. For more than eight months, the President resisted bipartisan calls for a new Cabinet department. Then he reversed course and called on Congress to act promptly. Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) had already made great progress toward coming up with a consensus plan. The House moved forward with all due dispatch. Within weeks, all but a few details of the new agency's mission and scope had been agreed upon. Then the trouble began.
Bush insisted that he be given the flexibility to hire, fire, and transfer employees within the new department -- even if those workers had union bargaining agreements covering job security and working conditions. The President said he needed the flexibility to protect national security and to respond quickly to terrorist threats.
Labor leaders and their Democratic allies, including Lieberman, said the entire issue boiled down to union-busting. Gerald McEntee, President of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, says the President has, in the past, used the war on terror as a pretext to bust unions. Case in point: Labor leaders say support personnel in U.S. attorneys' offices were stripped of union protections by Attorney General John Ashcroft in the name of national security. McEntee sees it as evidence of the Bush Administration's "bad faith."
MIDDLE GROUND. Republicans fire back that Democrats are harming homeland security to curry favor with union bosses, who are preparing to mobilize a huge get-out-the-vote effort for the midterm elections. "The Democrats have had to choose between a bill and the public-employee labor unions, and they have chosen the labor unions," charges Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), co-author of a White House-backed compromise.
A bipartisan group of moderate senators -- John Breaux of Louisiana, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- has tried to negotiate a middle ground. They would give the President the flexibility he's demanding but create a mechanism that could overturn any labor-agreement violations that aren't related to legitimate national security concerns. Sounds reasonable, right?
With the clock ticking on Congress' 2002 session, neither side seems willing to cave. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said the Democrats have gone "80% to 90% of the way toward where the Administration wanted on most of the issues. It's down really to two things: Should you have a right to belong to a union? And, if you're fired, should some independent board have a chance to review why you were fired?"
"A MACHO THING"? Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), it seems, is the only leader on either side of the Capitol willing to broker a deal. "I believe that Senator Breaux and Senator Lieberman and Senator [Fred] Thompson (R-Tenn.) and I, maybe others, could sit down and, in about an hour, come to an agreement that would get the job done," he said on Oct. 4. "Would it be one that would be perfectly suitable to the union bosses of the federal bureaucracies? No. Would it be one that would be perfectly suitable to the President? No. Would it be one that we could get through the Senate, get it into conference, and then get a result? Yes."
Just two obstacles: George Bush and Tom Daschle. "Nobody is doing what's needed to get it done," laments Lott. The GOP leader wonders if it's "a macho thing." He says Daschle told him, in effect, that the unions had vetoed any compromise.
However, the President could also have political motives for prolonging the standoff. One Democratic consultant says the situation is a win-win for the Administration: Either the Democrats give in and alienate their union allies just before the midterm elections, or they get blamed for blocking the new department's creation.
Both sides make valid points. But that doesn't get America any closer to a resolution, and it's the leadership's job to resolve thorny issues such as this.
WRONG MESSAGE. The homeland security fiasco approaches the height of irresponsibility. Whether the two sides are motivated by deeply held principles or crass political opportunism, it's time for them to stop squabbling and do the right thing. The Breaux-Chafee-Nelson compromise won't make either side altogether happy, but it would achieve the far more important goal: Protecting the American people from terrorism.
By threatening to sink the entire homeland security bill over a single labor provision, President Bush and the union bosses are sending a message to citizens that the threat posed by al Qaeda and its allies isn't sufficiently important to override petty partisanship. That's the wrong message to send to the world and to American voters.
The President and the Democrats should cut a deal as soon as possible, have a big Rose Garden signing ceremony, and get on with the job of protecting the American people. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online