By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Eager to showcase fresh votes on national security before the fall elections, Congress has loaded a $34 billion homeland security spending bill with measures to beef up defenses at the nation's borders, ports and chemical plants and to revamp its disaster management.
The action comes as Republicans try to galvanize voters by focusing on illegal immigration, while Democrats contend that GOP inaction or poor oversight has made the nation less safe since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
With few exceptions, however, the measures are less sweeping than they appear, analysts said. Watered down to avoid controversy or budget-breaking costs, several of the measures also run counter to the wishes of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, reflecting how politics trumps policy come election time, they said.
"Most of the stuff is 'Do no harm,' " said Heritage Foundation senior research fellow James Jay Carafano. "Most of it, quite frankly, is a lot of political theater."
David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the focus on ports, hazardous chemicals, the border and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was intentional but misleading.
"If you had to rank the top five issues that Americans were concerned about, they seem to be the ones that Congress is acting on. At the same time, they are the top five issues that Congress and the administration have failed to act on for three or four years," Heyman said. "And to be honest, I don't know if they're acting on them."
Republican leaders are to meet tomorrow to hammer out the final terms and to clear the must-pass bill before Congress recesses Friday.
On border security, lawmakers have voted to build a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, speed the deportation of undocumented workers and deputize state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. The piecemeal measures pushed by House Republicans would take the place of President Bush's broader rewriting of immigration laws -- which includes job site enforcement and a temporary worker program, as passed by the Senate.
However, the measures would have to be added to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill to take effect. So far, senators say they will agree to provide only $1.2 billion for the fencing, enough for about 400 miles, pending final talks.
Chertoff criticized House Republicans for their focus on border security and enforcement alone, saying his department's recent successes at shutting down the flow of non-Mexican illegal border crossers will prove fleeting if the demand for illegal labor is not addressed.
"Certainly, what we're doing at the border is helpful," Chertoff said in a recent interview. "But if that's the only thing that we do, it's going to be very, very hard to sustain it."
On FEMA, House and Senate negotiators snubbed Chertoff. Following recommendations investigators made after Hurricane Katrina, lawmakers would create a bigger, stronger FEMA at the secretary's expense, stopping short of carving the agency out of DHS.
Lawmakers propose to reunite under FEMA the emergency preparedness and response functions that Chertoff severed last year in a major reorganization. They would also elevate FEMA's chief to be the president's chief disaster adviser.
The changes would force the White House and Chertoff to choose who would lead the beefed-up FEMA: the current director, R. David Paulison; his boss, Undersecretary for Preparedness George W. Foresman; or someone else.
Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson acknowledged that DHS is "working as much as is possible with Congress" to smooth out changes.
On ports, the Senate recently voted to install radiation detectors by the end of next year at the 22 biggest ports, which get 98 percent of inbound cargo; add 1,000 customs agents; and start a pilot program at three foreign ports to scan for nuclear or "dirty bomb" materials in U.S.-bound cargo.
But, again, lawmakers have not agreed to fund all the proposals.
Similarly, negotiators from the Senate and House homeland security panels announced a tentative deal Thursday to give DHS authority to enforce security rules for high-risk chemical plants.
But Democrats and environmental groups said the pact is filled with loopholes sought by industry, such as barring DHS from requiring companies to switch to safer chemicals, failing to explicitly allow tougher state regulations and exempting facilities such as drinking-water and wastewater plants.