Biowar: Hill changes are little help

By DEE ANN DIVIS, Senior Science & Technology Editor  |  Jan. 12, 2005 at 2:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Two new committees on Capitol Hill will simplify the funding and oversight of biodefense programs, but not enough to avoid significant duplication of effort.

The House and Senate both have streamlined their management of domestic security issues by giving oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and many related functions to permanent committees. The House's newly formed Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate's renamed and expanded Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee replace the temporary groups put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The good news is the committees are likely to give bioterrorism a great deal of attention.

"The top two priorities for the Department of Homeland Security are the prevention of bioterrorism and the prevention of nuclear terrorism," Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the new House committee, told United Press International.

More good news is the committees should have more clout. During the last Congress, of the 40 bills referred to the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, 35 also were handled by other committees and the remaining five largely were tweaks to operations at the DHS.

So far in the House, nine bills have come before the homeland security committee. Of those, five are being handled by the Homeland Security Committee alone and several involve new, if small, programs. It still is too early in this congressional session for a comparison of how the Senate committee is faring.

The bad news is oversight of biodefense programs and related efforts remains tucked into different committees, like chocolate in the Easter baskets of committee chairmen not willing to give up their fiscal candy. One only has to look at the bills mentioned above to see that the four with shared jurisdiction will likely involve more money and more substantive issues

Officially the congressionl resolution setting up the new House committee gave it jurisdiction over research and development and over anti-terrorism preparedness as well as other areas. The problem lies in an accompanying legislative history that was inserted into the Congressional Record. It lays out the intent of Congress, thereby setting the real boundaries of the legislation. The history makes clear the new House committee will have jurisdiction over homeland security only "on a government-wide or multi-agency basis" and its oversight will be limited to areas not already covered by other committees. The arrangement leaves agencies spending their time answering the questions of multiple committees.

"On the House side, what is a little bit disappointing is that they really did keep a lot of the original stove pipes intact," said David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

More important, the money for programs that need to be handled seamlessly will continue to come from different sources, making seamless operations more difficult. Public health is a good example. The same people and systems watching out for food poisoning and tuberculosis also are integral to spotting and countering a bioterror attack. Yet these efforts probably will be handled by different house committees.

"Clearly, stuff that goes to the hospitals and public health departments remains with Energy and Commerce," said David Schanzer, former Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Homeland Security, "but to the extent that the committee is doing biodefense preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security, that would be the (House Homeland Security Committee's) jurisdiction as well."

The multi-billion dollar Bioshield program, currently funded through DHS but managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, also may land in multiple committees.

"I would still imagine (Homeland Security) would have an element of shared jurisdiction with the principal focus still being in the Energy and Commerce Committee," Schanzer told BioWar.

Bioshield could become a particularly interesting case study. Its supporters are planning legislation to expand business-friendly provisions with liability limits and patent extensions. The big pharmaceutical firms are almost certain to get involved with such plums on the table. Watch for venue shopping as the firms look for the committees most likely to give them what they want.

Aides from both sides of the Hill have pointed out that the Senate did not consolidate all homeland-security activities into one committee, either, though the Senate did come a lot closer -- at least with regard to bioterrorism programs.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee will be overseeing Plum Island as well as former Department of Defense programs such as the National Bio-Weapons Defense Analysis Center. Chemical and biological national security programs, once split between the Senate Armed Services, Commerce, Science and Transportation committees, now are all under Senate Homeland Security.

The Department of Energy's research on pathogens was consolidated, too. There still are going to be turf battles, but the jurisdictions laid out by the Senate so far seem more clear and the battleground more limited.

Unfortunately, muddled jurisdiction on the House side gives committee chairmen there the opportunity to push for a hand in the process -- even when it comes to conference negotiations. It may just be a stalling tactic, but if the chairmen can slow things down, they gain leverage to force their way into negotiations with the Senate when it comes time to ironing out differences between two bills.

"The committees in the House essentially have a de facto veto," Heyman said. "They can hold up stuff by saying 'Wait a second, we get a take on this.'"


UPI's Shaun Waterman contributed to this report



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