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Continued Tails from the Department of Homeland Security

December 22nd, 2005

The Washington Post is running a story today about the organizational failure of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is a favorite topic of mine because I was working in Congress at the time of its creation and predicted, at the ripe age of 21, that it would be an utter failure. I did so based on two thoughts: one, the proposed merit based personnel system would inevitably lead to tremendous patronage problems which would cripple the organizations; two, the department would become home to every boondoggle security project that regions would demand but the nation wouldn’t really need.

I still believe I was right on both points, but it turns out there was a third reason to believe DHS would be a failure… lack of political support from the White House (except for the merit-based personnel system). The Post article details the amazing complexity of reorganizing the 22 federal agencies that comprise DHS. While nowhere near the scale of the problem, I sympathize with the difficulty with reorganization having been a major reformer of student government my whole college career. But such efforts are made even more complicated when the powers that be simply don’t care, or worse yet, directly oppose your efforts. From the looks of it, the White House came down against DHS on almost every major issue of controversy.

Another amazing tidbit emerging from the article is how the agency was built in the first place. The task of creating a new department fell to a group of five mid-level staffers who did their work in almost total secrecy. That’s okay, in my mind, provided that after the work is done they can work through their mistakes and be open about their fallibility. But I was there and I watched the congressional hearings… there were no mistakes and the bill was infallible.

The reason for this stubbornness is Washington itself. Had the sponsors been willing to admit the bill was in need of fine tuning Congress would have smelled blood and engaged in a Congressional turf war threatening to stop the entire process. I sat in the Ways & Means Committee for the markup of the House DHS bill. It’s important to note that the Committee’s jurisdiction was simply advisory. The entire bill would be referred to a special select committee would would have actual authority over the bill. At the Ways & Means Committee I saw Chairman Thomas, a powerful man, express his great displeasure with the bill and how it was taking away the Customs Agency from his Committee’s oversight. And yet this man, responsible for the nation’s tax policy and entitlement programs, was powerless to stop it. Why? Because the bill was perfect.

And yet, three years later, it seems that way of thinking is less and less the case.

probonogeek Uncategorized

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