“It’s going to be like Dorothy going to the Land of Oz.” That’s how James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, characterized the potential red-to-blue transition at the Department of Homeland Security if Barack Obama becomes president. It would be the first time Democrats have run the agency since it was established in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Carafano, whose sentiments are echoed by fellow security experts, says Democrats would experience culture shock upon arriving at the department, which oversees agencies as diverse as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard.
“There hasn’t been a mainstream Democratic political appointee in these situations since Sept. 11, and the homeland security enterprise has evolved significantly,” Carafano said. Obama’s homeland security responsibilities would include identifying U.S. security vulnerabilities; addressing those vulnerabilities with money, programs and personnel; working with and organizing state and local governments as well as the private sector on security issues; and communicating with the public about threats, crises and preparedness.
So what should we expect if Democrats come to the DHS helm? Homeland security experts Clark Ervin of the non-partisan Aspen Institute and Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization, weigh in on the issues.
Q: Given the intelligence capabilities of the FBI and CIA, do we still need a DHS?
Clark: Yes, for three reasons. One, the FBI and CIA have other things to do besides homeland security. Two, the FBI’s and CIA’s respective track records as to homeland security (not to mention other things) is, shall we say, “lacking.” Third, in my view, as much of the nation’s homeland security-related intelligence/counter-terrorism work should be done by the DHS as possible; otherwise, why have it at all?
Ben: DHS does lots of things that the FBI and CIA don’t do. It is basically a holding company, so to speak, for lots of agencies that are useful though incidental to intelligence gathering and in many cases counter-terrorism. We need a border patrol and customs agency to check people and cars entering the United States, whether it is housed in DHS or not. We need a Coast Guard to look after coastal waters, inspect boats for safety and rescue people in rough seas. FEMA is useful in cleaning up after storms.
Q: How, if at all, would a Democrat-led DHS affect the average citizen?
Clark: I think there’d be a greater focus on protecting civil rights/civil liberties, including privacy. And, I believe, a greater willingness to, if necessary, force industry to take necessary steps to close security gaps. Finally, I would hope and expect that Democrats (I’m a Republican, mind you) would focus more than this administration has on making programs and operations work.
Ben: The effect of a Democrat-controlled Congress and presidency on DHS will be small. They would likely increase spending on homeland security overall, heightening tax burdens or deficits, particularly spending on grants to states and localities. They are likely to insist on greater scrutiny on cargo entering the United States on ships, which might slightly increase prices on all sorts of things. These policies do not much improve safety, and they almost certainly will not justify their cost from a cost-benefit standpoint. But their cost will be minuscule for the average person.
Q: Should FEMA remain under the purview of DHS? Why or why not?
Clark: Yes, because FEMA didn’t fail during Katrina because it was in the DHS. It failed because it had bad leadership and inadequate resources. We would have gotten the same dismal result back then if it had been a stand-alone agency reporting directly to the president. (And, by the way, effectively, it did report directly to the president, since (Michael) Brown says he bypassed channels and dealt with the White House directly).
Ben: Yes. What FEMA needs is good management, not more reorganization.
Q: What would be the three major differences between a Bush-run DHS and an Obama-run DHS?
Clark: Greater resources; greater willingness to use legislative/regulatory tools to force industry to take necessary security steps; and a greater focus on competence and results.
Ben: Firstly, Bush has tried to hold down spending. Democrats will spend more. They like homeland security spending, more than Republicans, because it covers their right flank. Secondly, Democrats will end efforts to reform DHS personnel rules in ways that federal employee unions oppose. And thirdly, Democrats are less prone to alarmist statements about terrorist capabilities. They talk about existential threats too, but less often. They may fear-monger less.
Q: What would be the biggest DHS-related challenges facing Obama?
Clark: First, pressure to blow up or otherwise radically restructure or reorient DHS right off the bat. Second, making DHS as cohesive and effective as possible. Third, given the economic crisis, competing demands and lessening terrorism fears, getting DHS the increased resources it needs to get the job done.
Ben: The demand for perfect safety leads to programs like 100 percent screening of cargo containers or efforts to make sure every firefighter, even in remote areas, is ready for chem/bio attacks, which are unjustified from a cost-benefit perspective. There is no political percentage in telling people that we cannot protect them from everything without going bankrupt or eliminating their freedom, so the government is forced into wasteful and inefficient efforts to achieve total security. There is no obvious solution to this problem.
Q: If you were Obama, what would you do with the DHS upon entering the White House?
Clark: I’d keep the structure as it is for at least the first term, but make sure you put in leaders skilled in counter-terrorism and bureaucratic management and make sure you get the department the resources it needs to do its job.
Ben: Try to insulate its budget makers from political pressure to respond to demands for total safety. The experience of regulatory agencies like EPA, which are legally required to include cost-benefit analysis in their considerations of new regulations, is instructive. I would also try to belittle terrorists rather than talking about them like supermen.