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How Republicans Define Security

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page A27

Election Day approaches, which means it is time for House Republicans to run fully amok. Today, the House will take up a bill by Indiana Republican Mark Souder to lift the gun controls in the District of Columbia. Souder's bill legalizes ownership of semiautomatic weapons and armor-piercing ammunition. How this would increase security around the White House and the Capitol is something that Souder and Co. have neglected to explain, but no matter. The House Republican leadership knows the bill won't pass the Senate. The only reason it was even introduced was to force House Democrats -- a number of whom represent gun-loving districts -- to vote on this nonsense.

Also today, five House committees take up Speaker Dennis Hastert's bill to reform the U.S. intelligence community. House Democrats were kept in the dark on the contents of the bill until it emerged fully grown from Hastert's office late last week. By contrast, the bill being considered in the Senate is the result of extensive deliberation and close cooperation between Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat.

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Hastert's bill needs rewriting rather than processing. On the one hand, it departs from the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission and from the Senate bill in doing far less to create a more centralized, accountable and efficient intelligence and counterterrorism structure in the government. On the other, it lards the bill with extraneous provisions crafted to force the Democrats to cast politically vulnerable votes against the bill, or to make it impossible for a House-Senate conference committee to reach any agreement, thereby killing the proposed reforms altogether. Which, some intelligence reformers fear, is the consummation for which House Republicans devoutly, though not publicly, wish.

Under the terms of the Hastert bill, the newly created national intelligence director (NID) would emerge as a glorified paper shuffler. Rather than possess the authority to divvy up intelligence funding among the various agencies, he would merely "ensure the effective execution of the annual budget," whatever that means. Should an emergency arise that requires moving funds from one intelligence-related program to another, the NID would need the permission of the agency on the losing end of the deal. "It appears to give enhanced budgetary authority to the individual agencies rather than the NID," says Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "It's a step backwards."

The Hastert bill also goes in directions the Sept. 11 commission never even pondered, in part because the commission confined itself to enhancing national security. The legislation gives government attorneys the right to disclose grand jury matters in national security-related actions. It enhances the peremptory authority of immigration officers to expel undocumented immigrants (not undocumented immigrants suspected of a crime, mind you, just undocumented immigrants).

And -- a blast from the past -- it gives the president authority to eliminate the collective bargaining rights that some of the federal employees of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) retained after the 2002 legislation that established the DHS and stripped many, but not all, DHS employees of those rights. We can term this provision "Son of Cleland" after Max Cleland, the Georgia Democratic senator who opposed the 2002 bill because of its gratuitous attack on federal employees, and who lost his seat that fall to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who accused Cleland of threatening America's security.

This time around, Democrats don't even have to vote against the measure for Republicans to make hay with it. If House Republicans can muster the votes to send the Hastert bill to conference (and they surely can), and then the Senate refuses to incorporate their lax and demagogic provisions, Republicans can still blame Senate Democrats -- most particularly, Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who is caught up in a tight election battle, for weakening security.

The definition of security, I suppose, can depend on who you think poses the greatest threat to the nation. In the age of Bush, Republicans (with a few notable exceptions) surely don't believe it's al Qaeda, from which they diverted our forces to fight in Iraq. Nor do they believe it's now our enemies in Iraq, against whom they did not prepare so much as a battle plan. Only if you believe the greatest threat to Republicans -- excuse me, to America -- is the Democrats, that it's worth blowing off the danger from Osama bin Laden to eliminate the peril posed by Daschle, does the Republicans' security policy make any sense at all.


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