Analysis: Big Government is Back

By NICHOLAS HORROCK and MARK BENJAMIN  |  Oct. 5, 2001 at 8:39 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Galvanized by the war on terrorism, President Bush and an eager Congress are directing the biggest emergency expansion of the federal government since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, heading the country back to deficit spending and refocusing the world's attention on Washington.

Since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the president has ordered a call up of 50,000 Reserve and National Guard forces, ordered a major expansion of the sky marshal program, taken responsibility for security at 420 commercial airports, and with Congress is directing new security roles for the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

He has proposed a whole new government operation, Homeland Defense, and appointed Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head it. Now conceived as a White House office, Congress might turn it into a federal agency.

The Bush administration won easy passage in Congress for $60 billion in emergency funds to assist the victims of the attacks, aid the air travel industry, help workers displaced by the terrorism emergency and beef up security.

On Friday, Bush asked Congress for another $60 billion in tax cuts to restart the economy, mostly in the form of relief for businesses and individuals in a bid to induce Americans to start spending again.

He effectively has wiped out the budget surplus for this fiscal year and probably for the next and crossed the Rubicon of the Social Security surplus after setting three criteria for dipping into it: war, national emergency or recession, and saying that he is facing all three. It will undoubtedly be sacrificed to pay for the coming changes.

"You've got dual crises here with foreign military and homeland defense spending," says Stanley Collender, director of Public Affairs for Fleishmann Hillard and former congressional budget expert. On top of that, he said, the sagging economy requires urgent attention.

"The response to the economic situation alone is going to be the most immediate increase in government activity, with talks about government bailouts of state and local governments, the hospitality industry, airline workers, and on and on. And you've got bailouts of other industries through the tax system.

The tactics might not be the same, but the overall strategy seems to be clear," he said. "The federal government is going to do whatever it takes. And that smacks of Franklin Roosevelt."

The last few weeks are decidedly "ironic" for Bush, who comes from a party of fiscal conservatives and enemies of big government, argues Steven Hess, the veteran analyst of politics and government for the Brookings Institution. Hess said the president came to office hewing to his message, but since Sept. 11 has shown that, "he has the flexibility to deal with a crisis."

Congress is playing its role in ramping up government as well.

The Senate next week is set to move on an expedited basis an anti-terrorism bill that would triple the number of agents at the border between the United States and Canada. The bill would also order the government to begin work on a "fingerprint identification system" to match the identities of visitors to the country with their travel papers.

There are 1,000 agents on the border with Canada now, and a tripling would bring the force to 3,000. The agents are part of the Border Patrol, which is a division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. INS already has more armed agents than any other federal police and a total staff total of 33,000.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are also aggressively pushing legislation to expand the INS to better track visitors with visas. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has a bill to set up a new INS office to hunt down violators who overstay their visas and create a fully automated system to track entries into and exits from the country. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wants to pass a bill boosting funding for the INS to track student visas and requires educational institutions to track the status of student visas.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has warned that the proposals could cramp the economy further and inhibit trade and travel.

Immigration experts warned that civil liberties should not be infringed in the flurry of activity on Capitol Hill with respect to immigration law.

"If you are talking about the theme of big government, the place you get off track is internal controls imposed on U.S. citizens," said Dan Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "That is a line that, if we cross it, we are going into dangerous territory."

Congress next week is also almost certain to pass a major bill to boost security at airports, and might create a new cadre of federal employees to check bags and perform security screenings at 140 of them.

One airline lobbyist familiar with the discussions on airport security said that the current proposals for federalizing the security teams would mean a minimum of 14,000 to 25,000 new federal workers to man security stations.

This range applies to a near complete federalization program, but it does not include the extra employees required to manage such a program and train the workers in security techniques. There are no cost estimates for the program, except a per-ticket surcharge of between $2.50 and $5, but the government expects to pay a lot.

Bush has already asked the nation's governors to call up the National Guard to provide security at U.S. airports over the next 4-6 months; the federal government will pay for some 4,000 soldiers on that duty. Many of them are at airports this week.

The FAA already has begun hiring an army of sky marshals to accompany flights, and though the agency would issue no numbers for this undercover operation to be even minimally effective, some law enforcement experts say it would have to have 5,000 agents.

A Senate panel Tuesday also began a study of how the government can play an expanded role in improving security not only at airports, but also on highways, along rail lines and at over 300 U.S. ports -- many of which are in urban areas.

"We must work now to protect the critical infrastructure elements of our railways, roads, transit systems, pipelines and waterways," Adm. James Underwood, director of intelligence and security at the Department of Transportation, told a Senate panel.

The U.S. Council of Mayors has sent a proposal to every member of Congress, which calls for federal help on an expanded list of local security tasks, including the guarding of reservoirs and other vital water sources.

Many terrorism experts believe that there has to be a major federal program to improve medical emergency response across the country and a major beefing-up of the Public Health Service.

Congress is also on the verge of passing a $345 billion defense bill -- an 11 percent increase in spending on the military. Both the House and Senate versions of that bill contain $6 billion to be set aside specifically for the military to fight terrorism.

"I consider this to be merely a down-payment on what must be a long-term commitment by our nation to defend against, seek out, and eliminate terrorism," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz., said after the House passed its bill in a 398-17 vote Sept. 25.

One of the major debates will be over the nature of the Homeland Defense operation. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, favors a full agency, as defined in a recommendation by the U.S. Commission on National Security. The commission, jointly chaired by two former Senators, Republican Warren Rudman and Democrat Gary Hart, called for the sky-marshals, Border Patrol and Coast Guard to be placed under a strong coordinating agency.

As part of an anti-terrorism bill speeding its way through Congress, Bush also has sought vast new powers for electronic eavesdropping, detention of aliens and other restrictions on immigrants, which if passed will allow the government to monitor the internet as well as a new class of telephones.

And while the new surveillance powers -- combined with the other expanding roles of the federal government -- have worried some, some observers said it is to be expected.

"In times of war or national crisis, government almost always expands its size and power," Griswold said.

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