WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Several pieces of legislation before a Senate committee Friday would significantly reorganize several executive branch agencies to better deal with the ongoing terrorism threat.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee looked at several House and Senate bills meant to follow up on President George W. Bush's creation of the Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the committee chairman, said legislation such as the bill he and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced would give Ridge's appointment statutory backing. Specter, appearing as a witness, said Ridge would not be able to call on the president to step in on every interagency squabble.
"(Our bill) is meant to structure homeland defense in a way that makes sense operationally, but also in terms of maximizing funding priorities, interagency cooperation and just plain bureaucratic clout," Lieberman said.
Several witnesses, including retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar under President Clinton, told the committee Bush's executive order creating OHS fails to encompass many areas of the federal government, including the armed forces. McCaffrey said the current OHS arrangement would force Ridge to borrow staff from other offices, even for mundane tasks such as public relations.
"Within one year ... with no federal legislation, with no separate budget, no budget certification, (Ridge) will be relegated to running the speakers' bureau on counter-terrorism operations," McCaffrey said. "That will not be what either the Congress or the president wants."
The bills under consideration would solve that problem by elevating either OHS or similar entities into Cabinet-type positions, complete with the ability to either create their own budgets or reject other agencies' funding requests. The Senate would have confirmation authority over these department directors.
The Lieberman/Specter bill, the Department of National Homeland Security Act, would create a Secretary of National Homeland Security with a seat on the National Security Council. The secretary would plan, coordinate and integrate border security, preparedness and other activities nationwide, including regional offices to work with state and local agencies.
To get all these tasks done, the bill would transfer the following agencies to the new department:
-- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose 10 regional offices would receive additional resources;
-- The U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which would remain separate agencies, and;
-- The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center and National Domestic Preparedness Office, as well as the Department of Commerce's Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office and Institute of Information Infrastructure Protection, which together would work on securing U.S. cyberspace and other critical industries.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., described for the committee a bill she is co-sponsoring with Rep. James Gibbons, R-Nev. It would essentially recreate OHS by statute, giving it many of the functions described in the Lieberman/Specter bill.
A bill originally sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would create a National Office for Combating Terrorism within the president's executive group. The office would have more of an oversight function, with the ability to reject federal budget items relating to terrorism.
The Graham/Feinstein bill does not specify the office's resources, leaving that decision to the president. Graham, appearing before the Governmental Affairs Committee, agreed with Lieberman to see if their bills could be combined. At least one other homeland defense bill has been submitted in both the House and Senate, witnesses said.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the committee's ranking minority member, cautioned that while immediate action is needed, quickly picking a new organizational structure for such a decentralized problem might be counterproductive.
"We deride the fact that 40 agencies have responsibility," Thompson said. "Maybe 40 agencies need responsibility. Give the president the opportunity to look across this spectrum and all these agencies doing all these things ... and take some time to see how this thing ought to be reorganized."
Committee member Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, reminded the hearing of the Energy Department's very similar birth in the early 1970s. Drawing on his experience in the department during the first Nixon administration, Bennett said any new department will take quite some time to come together, and not without great difficulties. Bennett and Lieberman agreed, however, the end result was well worth the effort.