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Democratic Homeland Offensive

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: January 10, 2007

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For half a decade, the Democratic minority in Congress championed homeland security proposals that led to the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the 9/11 Commission. Despite these major initiatives, many Democrats chafed at Republican opposition to smaller bills to address specific vulnerabilities. Gaining congressional power this month, Democrats quickly passed legislation they say will make the United States safer (Reuters).

Democratic concern about serious security gaps is in part due to the unfulfilled recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. In a final report at the end of 2005, the commission graded the progress made on forty-one of its recommendations. Twelve received a grade of D and five received failing marks (PDF). As part of new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Hundred-hour agenda, the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill designed to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The bill now moves on to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future (ChiTrib).

Weighing in at 277 pages, the new legislation takes a broad approach, encompassing everything from local fire departments to foreign policy toward Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. The bill includes measures requiring screening (USAToday) of all cargo shipped on passenger aircraft, screening “for radiation and density” of all shipping containers headed for U.S. ports, and the formation of an agency (BosGlobe) to investigate claims of privacy invasion.

The bill also attempts to restructure the distribution of homeland security grants so that the places most at risk receive most of the money. DHS attempts to do this already, but when the grants were announced last summer, New York and Washington—generally considered the most at-risk localities—received less money than in previous years, prompting widespread criticism.

Of course, the Democratic proposal has its opponents. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who until this month chaired the Homeland Security Committee, complained about the Democratic refusal to allow debate on the proposed legislation. “Homeland Security is too important an issue (National Journal)—and this is too encompassing a bill—to not have any oversight,” he says. Some Republicans protest the bypassing of the normal committee process, while others worry some of the measures could slow the flow of commerce.

James J. Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, says of the new bill, “For the most part, its new measures are not terribly useful.” Carafano and others argue that much of the bill mandates costly, unfeasible programs (NYT). CFR Senior Fellow Stephen E. Flynn says in a new CFR.org Podcast that Congress is the wrong entity to implement such measures. Rather, securing our homeland should be an “executive function,” especially since congressional efforts are “susceptible to being hijacked by partisan debates.”      

Though much attention has focused on the House, where Democrats maintain a larger majority, a bipartisan group of senators has proposed its own security legislation. A proposed bill would provide $1.2 billion over the next three years to shore up railroads, pipelines, buses, and trucks. Carafano calls the Senate focus on infrastructure a “loser strategy.” As he tells the National Journal: “You can’t childproof the United States.”

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