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Bush's Powers in Security Plan Challenged

Defense: Both parties criticize effort to avoid Senate confirmation of homeland security's assistant secretaries, other constraints.

July 18, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush's attempt to design a Department of Homeland Security unfettered by the usual constraints of Washington bureaucracy is drawing sharp criticism in Congress from lawmakers leery of an executive power grab.

Bush wants as many as 10 assistant secretaries in the new department to be free of the ordinary requirement to undergo Senate confirmation.

The administration also is seeking the authority to manage the department's more than 160,000 workers under a ''flexible, contemporary'' alternative to the federal civil service system.

And it wants the authority to reshuffle significant portions of the department's budget each year without congressional approval.

Bush contends that the more freedom he is given to hire and fire employees, buy and sell government property, appoint top executives and spend or save public money, the better his department will be able to respond to an unpredictable, fast-moving terrorist threat.

''Our adversaries are not encumbered by a lot of rules,'' Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the White House budget director, told reporters Wednesday. ''Al Qaeda doesn't have a 3-foot-thick code. This department is going to need to be nimble.''

While most in Congress profess support for a strong, agile homeland security agency, senior lawmakers from both parties disagree sharply with many of Bush's ideas.

The emerging debate indicates that Congress is not just worried about the size and shape of the new department, but also is determined to have a strong say in how it would be run.

The administration plan for a Department of Homeland Security echoes ideas Bush and his aides have advanced to expand executive powers in the Pentagon and other Cabinet departments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For instance, Bush has sought large, open-ended ''contingency'' funds to help him make war on terrorists. So far, Congress has balked at his requests for blank checks.

In creating a homeland security department, Bush--the first president with an MBA--has found a blank slate to sketch out his own ideas about management. He has left the proposed 15th Cabinet department free of much of the red tape that encumbers the other 14.

Analysts say the president's proposal, if enacted, would mark a milestone in congressional-executive relations.

''It reflects a desire to move authority down Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capitol Hill to the White House,'' said Paul C. Light, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. Light said he believed Bush's plan to name a posse of assistant secretaries without Senate approval was ''almost unprecedented.''

While Bush's call for ''flexibility'' has considerable backing from congressional Republican leaders, senior lawmakers from both parties are attacking the plan piece by piece.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a leading advocate of congressional prerogatives, has called the Bush plan flawed and is threatening to slow-walk it in the Senate.

In a hearing Wednesday before a House leadership panel, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) denounced administration proposals to allow the new department freedom to spend money in ways that Congress has not approved. The Bush bill would allow shifts in funding of up to 5% from one program to another.

Such transfer of authority is not unprecedented; the departments of Justice and Defense also have some discretionary spending power. But a Democratic aide said it would be highly unusual.

Noting that Congress' authority over the federal purse survived the Civil War and two world wars, Obey said it was ''surprising and disturbing that the administration would choose to revisit a decision so central to our constitutional heritage.''

Agreeing with Obey, the Republicans who lead the House Appropriations Committee last week recommended killing the administration plan for spending flexibility. House leaders do not appear inclined to resurrect it.

If anything, many lawmakers want more restrictions on how the department may spend its money.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has recommended a ceiling on what the Coast Guard can spend on homeland security if the administration's plan to transfer it to the new department is approved. The committee says at least 12% of the Coast Guard's budget should be spent on search and rescue missions, 13% on illegal drug patrols and 11% on fishery patrols.

Defenders of the administration plan say such detailed curbs would place a straitjacket on the president's ability to respond to terrorist threats. But the committee says essential services should not be cut in the name of fighting terror.

The administration proposal would draw about 164,000 employees into the department (less than originally envisioned because the White House has agreed to leave in place about 5,000 Agriculture Department personnel).

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