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Retooling Cabinet No Easy Task

Government: Creating a department to oversee homeland defense would likely be painfully slow.


WASHINGTON — Even with the full weight of the presidency in support, creating a streamlined, fast-moving Cabinet department to fight terrorism is harder than you might suppose.

Never mind Al Qaeda. You're up against the National Turkey Growers of America.

President Bush had no sooner finished announcing his plan to establish a Department of Homeland Security than lobbyists for the turkey farmers, along with representatives of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., the National Milk Producers Federation and a dozen other groups, were on the phone Thursday night planning a war council for the next day.

They didn't want to be left behind when the government's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which protects farm animals from diseases and pests, moved to the new department.

"It's one of those silent agencies ... but a very important agency," said Chandler Keys of the cattlemen's association. "We want to make sure its historical mission is carried out, as well as any new mission."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 21 inches; 763 words Type of Material: Correction
Pentagon--An article in Section A on June 9 about government reorganizations incorrectly reported that the Pentagon was built in 1947 to house the newly created Defense Department. The Pentagon was completed in 1943 and was erected to house the Defense Department's predecessor, the War Department.

Terrorism or no, the creation of a Cabinet department is an enormous and inevitably slow process, not least because of the effect on interested parties, ranging from poultry farmers to the entrenched bureaucracies of the executive branch and the proud barons of Congress.

If the terrorist threat remains high and the public remains concerned, as most experts predict, then the Department of Homeland Security could join Defense, State and the Treasury among the super-departments whose reach and responsibilities make them powerful players in Washington and influential forces in the country at large.

History suggests, however, that achieving such a result will be a long, contentious and frequently messy process.

Bush himself drew a parallel last week between his proposal to create a single Cabinet department to guard against terrorism and President Truman's decision in 1947 to create the Defense Department to unify a fragmented military establishment that had endured almost unchanged since the Civil War.

While the Defense Department has proved that such a large-scale government reorganization can achieve positive results--after all, the Pentagon now presides over the world's only military superpower--that's not the only lesson for those who would create a Department of Homeland Security.

More than half a century after Truman and Congress brought the armed forces under one roof, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines still fight each other almost as fiercely as they do foreign enemies. Making them work together remains one of the toughest jobs in Washington.

And, once created, the department would almost certainly be revamped and fine-tuned regularly for decades to come--as were the Defense Department, the CIA, the National Security Council and other products of the 1947 reorganization, to deal with the Cold War.

Randy Larsen, director of a homeland security research group called the ANSER Institute, calls the Bush proposal "a great second step in a long evolutionary process of preparing this nation" to deal with terrorism.

Bush, in his weekly radio address Saturday, said the new department was needed to "unite essential agencies that must work more closely together."

Already, however, abundant signs suggest what a daunting task the reorganization would be, how many knotty issues would arise and how many battles would have to be fought.

Just designing and carrying out the basic reorganization is a herculean bureaucratic chore. With about 170,000 employees, Homeland Security would be the third-largest Cabinet department in the federal government. Where would its people work?

Creating the Defense Department entailed constructing the Pentagon, a 3.7-million-square-foot structure that still boasts the largest roof in the world and accommodates a mere 23,000 workers.

The question of space is one of the least recognized but most difficult issues in any government reorganization, said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Wisconsin specialist in how government agencies function. "You want to make it so people can connect the dots, but can you actually move people so they can work together? Simply finding space is difficult."

Since the whole point of the new department is to focus and accelerate the normally plodding pace of government, pulling together at least a fair number of its widely scattered components into one place is particularly urgent.

But the landscape of the nation's capital has become much more crowded since the 1940s, when ground was broken for the Pentagon in a 583-acre patch of weeds on the west bank of the Potomac River.

A far larger challenge arises from the fact that Homeland Security would be constructed from bits and pieces of existing departments, each with its own sense of mission, its own culture and its own galaxy of interest groups.

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