Congress Compromises To Create Department Of Homeland Security

In one of its first acts, the lame-duck session of the 107th Congress was expected to pass the bill that will create the Department of Homeland Security. It is the largest government reorganization in more than 50 years and establishes one super-agency to supervise and coordinate the nation's response to acts of terrorism. It will incorporate almost all of the federal programs that deal with the fire-rescue service and the role of firefighters as first responders in every type of disaster - which means that the new cabinet-level office will have a direct impact on every fire department in the country.

However, it looks like the money to aid first responders will be far less than what the fire-rescue service had been hoping for and far short of what it had been led to believe it would receive. Instead of being preserved as a separate program, the FIRE Act will now be a part of the homeland security appropriations and the $3.5 billion that was proposed to aid first responders will be split between two of the new department's major components. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will get $1.5 billion - of which $450 billion to $900 billion will be used for the FIRE Act. The remaining $2 billion - which includes funds for training and equipment - will go to the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP), which was supposed to become a part of FEMA, but will now be moved from the Justice Department to Homeland Security's border and transportation security division.

This came about because Republican leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not want to give up their authority over the ODP. The White House, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are not happy with the Judiciary Committee's power play and attempts will be made to change it when the new Congress convenes next month. There also will be an effort to maintain the FIRE Act as a separate grant program, though it will be an uphill battle and require all the help the fire-rescue service can muster from its supporters in Congress.

Homeland Security will be a huge and powerful department, with a starting budget of $37 billion and 170,000 employees from 22 federal agencies that have been involved in various aspects of the defense against terrorism. The process of transferring their personnel and responsibilities will begin next month and take a year to complete. The goal is to bring some order out of the confusion and bureaucratic rivalries that have characterized the federal government's anti-terrorism effort. It is something that the fire service has called for and wanted to see happen for almost a decade.

When first proposed by President George W. Bush last summer, it was thought that Congress would move with a sense of urgency to pass the legislation. There were promises and unrealistic expectations that it could be accomplished in time for the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or, at the very latest, by the time Congress adjourned for its fall recess. But the bill ran into trouble from the start as many of the agencies being asked to give up power, money and turf engaged in a behind-the-scenes resistance with their allies on the congressional committees that oversee their operations.

The biggest obstacle was the President's demand that the new agency must have the flexibility to hire, fire, promote and transfer workers without regard to the standard collective bargaining agreements that cover federal employees. The White House insisted that the nature of national security work requires managers to have the freedom to act quickly in moving people around to meet emergencies as they arise. Understandably, this radical idea was opposed by the unions that represent government workers, who see it as a threat to the civil service system.

Nevertheless, the Republican-controlled House managed to pass a bill that gave the President what he wanted before Congress adjourned in early October to go home and campaign for re-election. In the Democratic-controlled Senate - where labor had more political clout - the Homeland Security bill hit a wall on the "flexibility" issue and failed to pass before adjournment. Unfortunately for the Democrats, their failure to act became a campaign issue that was used effectively by Bush and the Republicans in some of the close races. It helped the Republicans increase their thin majority in the House and regain control of the Senate.

With the Democrats shaken and the Republicans elated by the midterm election results, Congress returned to Washington for the lame-duck session in which the first order of business was to pass the Homeland Security bill. Within two days, they had worked out a compromise in which the President got the flexibility he wanted and the unions got an appeal process that would enable them to challenge workplace rule changes and bring in a mediator if a dispute cannot be resolved in 30 days. Then, if the mediator can't settle a dispute, the Secretary of Homeland Security can go ahead and make the changes he wants.

It's a new approach to government operations and no one is sure how it will all work in actual practice. Everyone seems to agree that government workers should have the protection of the civil service, but many also believe that the system has become too rigid and too entrenched over a period of many years. What's amazing is how quickly they were able to reach a compromise after months of wrangling. The Democrats - who still controlled the Senate at the start of the lame-duck session - wanted to get it done, end the session and get out of town before a newly elected Republican senator from Missouri arrived in time for the GOP to take over.

The big question is how soon will the money start trickling down to the fire departments that need all the help they can get? It's now 15 months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and hardly anything has changed at the firehouse level. The only people who can be cheered by this situation are the terrorists who are planning their next attack.

This latest twist is a bitter blow to the nation's firefighters and it will take real teamwork on the part of the fire organizations to influence Congress to do the right thing. The only way that can happen is if the entire fire-rescue service speaks with one voice on this crucial issue.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.