The Magazine

The Wrong Fight at the Wrong Time

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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MANY A bone-dry political science disquisition has by now been written about the institutional combat between White House and Congress during the first year of the Bush administration. Our current president is a man who seems especially determined to protect the authority and prerogatives of his office. Which determination has already produced a series of high-profile controversies over restricted House and Senate access to government documents and personnel--West Wing resistance to congressional inquiries about Dick Cheney's energy-policy task force being the best known example. What pretends to be the latest such flap about the federal system's proper "separation of powers"--administration spokesman Ari Fleischer calls it "a classic executive-legislative struggle over information"--involves the question whether Tom Ridge, the White House "homeland security" adviser, should make himself available to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee concerning the president's domestic anti-terrorism budget.

The Appropriations Committee's chairman, Robert Byrd, and its ranking Republican, Ted Stevens, both insist that Ridge appear. The president is asking that a great lot of new money be spent on terror-related public safety programs, $38 billion in all. Byrd and Stevens have a responsibility to ensure that the money is spent wisely. So Ridge, whom Bush has made his "point man" on the project, is the one administration official the senators are most eager to quiz about it.

The White House, for its part, does not dispute that Ridge plays a central role in the anti-terror campaign. Instead, the administration is withholding his testimony on grounds of formalist principle. Bush aides point out that Ridge is not a Senate-confirmed officer of the government; his job was created unilaterally by the president. Therefore, they reason, unless a public integrity violation has been alleged, Congress has no statutorily specified "oversight" rationale to question Ridge about anything. Technically, at least, Ridge is only a "staffer." And if mere staffers are compelled to answer publicly for their work--something that would represent a "dramatic break from . . . longstanding traditions," according to Ari Fleischer--then their ability and willingness to offer the president "confidential advice" will be permanently and grievously compromised.

It's an interesting argument, we suppose: To what extent might the constitutional order be implicated and the presidency weakened were Tom Ridge to spend a televised hour on Capitol Hill listening to the octogenarian Robert Byrd deliver his memorized, all-purpose speech about ancient Macedonia?

But before we get to that, perhaps we should talk about . . . well, what happens to your luggage when you board a commercial airliner in the United States.

Let's say, just hypothetically, you're a citizen of one of those Arab countries that are America's "partners for peace" in the Middle East. Let's further say you share certain political views peculiarly native to such countries, and you think blowing the arms and legs off women and children is a noble deed. Finally, let's say your student visa application has recently been approved by the Immigration and Naturalization Service Tom Ridge is supposed to be straightening out. So you're here in the States, and you've boarded a packed transcontinental flight, and you've checked a valise full of explosives into the belly of the plane. But during a layover at Chicago's O'Hare, let's say, you've disembarked and vanished, leaving your valise, a ticking time bomb, behind.

They've got a system in place to cross-match connecting-flight passenger manifests with pre-checked luggage, don't they? So as to deter precisely this kind of horrifying plot?

Actually--amazingly--they don't, even now, six months after September 11, and three months after the connecting-flight luggage loophole was first publicly acknowledged, and two months after the Transportation Department announced a pilot program to close that loophole. MSNBC's Alex Johnson reported last week that the pilot program is not yet underway, and that Transportation still has no set plans to institute it. Moreover, the recent congressional mandate that would moot this problem--a requirement that every piece of checked luggage on U.S.-flag commercial airliners be subjected to point-of-departure electronic screening--has already been more or less ignored. A system to effect such screening was to have been introduced by the end of this year. But Transportation Department officials have lately admitted that they will miss the deadline. And most industry analysts don't expect them to finish up until--believe it or not--sometime in 2004.