The Magazine

The Homeland Security Two-fer

The smart politics behind Bush's new cabinet agency proposal.

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By TOD LINDBERG
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WHO SAYS YOU CAN'T have more than one good reason to do something? Of course, the proposition that disparate federal agencies with homeland security responsibilities should be combined into one massive cabinet department ought first to be judged on the contribution such consolidation will make to security. But if it also happens to be smart politics--a way for a wartime president to get some control over a domestic agenda that was badly adrift--well, what's wrong with that?

Democrats have been warning since shortly after September 11 that George W. Bush would risk the bipartisan support he enjoys in the war against terror if he tried to leverage his high job-approval ratings to advance a conservative domestic agenda. Meanwhile, Democratic strategists looking at upcoming congressional elections were urging their clients to concede the war to the president and open up differences on domestic policy in areas of traditional Democratic strength. Here again, if Bush opposed Democratic initiatives or propounded conservative policies of his own, he might be vulnerable to the charge that he was trying to exploit the war.

It's a nice box to have a president in: If he isn't bipartisan--which is to say, if he doesn't accommodate Democrats' desires in the fashion of the Kennedy-friendly education bill--then he is playing politics with the war and putting Americans at risk. Either Democrats get what they want on substance, or they get what they want politically--which is substantial consolation for your opponent's (hopefully temporary) popularity.

There are a couple of problems, though. First, the proposition that if Bush doesn't behave on domestic policy, Democrats will turn on the war effort. It really does lack credibility. Most Democrats, after all, genuinely support a robust war effort. But this is another case in which there is more than one good reason to do something--because as an empirical matter, whenever Democrats have voiced criticism of Bush on the war, they have been hammered for it. The only political danger Bush faces on the war effort, and it is currently quite remote, is from the right: an emerging sense that he is not being tough enough. The idea that there is an effective opposition to Bush from the dovish left is just entirely out of sync with American opinion.

Second, Bush has a little assignment of his own for Congress, namely, the biggest government reorganization in two generations. He would like it completed in a matter of months, please. In presenting his proposal, he has essentially colonized in the name of the war the vast bulk of the political space in which Democrats were hoping to put forward a domestic agenda.

During the 1980s, Republicans thought they had learned a lesson from the experience of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, namely, that when it comes to domestic policy and especially government spending, Congress has the upper hand. The capacity of the executive to check Congress is limited. Republicans learned the lesson so well that when they became the congressional party against a Democratic president in 1995, they immediately began to act as if they had the upper hand, pressing a balanced budget on the Clinton administration by means of a government shutdown. This enabled them to learn another lesson: No, Congress does not have the upper hand. The balance between the executive and Congress, as Clinton demonstrated, is more contextually determined than it is structurally fixed.

Bush has learned from Clinton. He doesn't need to accept a fight on Democrats' terms if he can orchestrate a fight on his terms. Here, he has proposed something so massive that, as has been widely reported, 88 different congressional committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over pieces of the proposed Homeland Security Department. Congress has a hard time with cross-jurisdiction issues even on a good day. Moreover, the structure of congressional committee oversight tends to mirror the structure of the executive branch. That means Bush has also in effect invited Congress to reorganize itself. He has turned Congress inward, as the biggest fights in the coming months will be behind-the-scenes struggles for clout. It's hardly an environment in which staging politics for purposes of outreach to voters will be top priority.

If Bush learned from Clinton's successes, he seems also to have learned from his biggest failure, the ill-starred health care reform proposal. Don't expect Bush's legislative language, when he releases it, to run to a thousand pages, a la Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner's overhaul plan. "The president proposes; Congress disposes," as the saying goes. Bush delivers the broad outlines of a proposal and lets the process work.

Under different circumstances, Congress would have the option of saying, "Forget it." That was the fate of Clintoncare. But this is homeland security we're talking about, and so not only will Congress want to do something for the good of the country out of principle, but also Bush is positioned to inflict grave political damage on a dilatory Congress that isn't doing what's necessary to make people safer. The more people saw of Clintoncare, the less they liked it, and there was a lot to see buried in its details. Plus, an industry-financed television campaign, "Harry and Louise," hammered the point home to the tune of a multi-million dollar ad buy. People have probably already seen about as much detail from the administration as they are likely to. And who is going to finance an ad campaign against the Bush proposal for homeland security?

There was an interesting headline in the Washington Post June 13: "Hill Eyes Shifting FBI, CIA." The story was speculating about a possible effort by congressional leaders to move parts of the two agencies into the Homeland Security Department, a move Bush opposes. But here's the real problem: There is no "Hill," not in the sense of an organized entity that sees through one pair of eyes and speaks with one voice. Instead, there are 535 people with turf to protect and ambitions to advance. Bush just figured out how to set them loose on each other. Homeland security, don't you know.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.