Results oriented

Airports, cargo detection, 9/11 commission seen as top priorities for Dems

Democrats will take charge of Congress in January for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but they are unlikely to pursue a major overhaul of homeland security ? at least not yet.

With the Iraq War raging, and President Bush still in the White House, Democrats probably will focus on achieving a few significant anti-terrorism objectives, such as boosting cargo screening at seaports and airports for the next two years, policy experts said. Larger changes could be held off until after the 2008 presidential election.

"I don't think homeland security will look enormously different," said James Carafano, senior policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. Iraq poses the greatest immediate challenge to the nation, leaving little time on the domestic anti-terrorism front, he said.

In recent years, several particular issues have captured the Democrats' focus:

» Greater budgets for homeland security

» Implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations

» Approving funds for more train, rail and chemical plant security

» Instituting 100 percent cargo screening for nuclear weapons.

They have criticized President Bush's policies related to protecting privacy, oversight of homeland security programs, disaster preparedness and first responders.

"In the next two years, I think you'll see Congress take on quantifiable initiatives, such as putting detectors at airports and ports, so they can point to that as an accomplishment," said Matthew Farr, senior homeland security analyst for Frost & Sullivan market research firm in San Antonio.

With majorities in the Senate and House, Democrats will step into leadership roles for homeland security. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the new House speaker, said one of her immediate goals is to implement the recommendations of the independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

The commission issued 41 recommendations in its final report in July 2004, including advice on cargo screening, intelligence and information-sharing, and private sector preparedness.

"Democrats have made fulfillment of the recommendations the center of their security platform," Farr said.

Eyes on the homeland

In the House, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, is likely to become the next chairman of the panel.
Thompson Nov. 16 publicly endorsed Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for House majority leader, over the objections of Pelosi, who had backed Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. Hoyer won the job.

Thompson's areas of interest include interoperability for first-responder communications, strengthening border security and protecting rails and mass transit systems from terrorists.

"Unfortunately, there is much left undone in homeland security," Thompson wrote in a Web statement. "Indeed, Hurricane Katrina made clear that our nation was not prepared to respond to a natural disaster, [let alone] a terrorist attack. I want to make sure that those vulnerabilities and gaps are addressed, and our nation is better for it."

In the 109th Congress, Thompson sponsored bills that addressed:

» The role of the Homeland Security Department's chief privacy officer

» Establishing an assistant secretary for physical infrastructure security

» Improving interoperability in first-responder radios

» Offering grants for mass transit system security.

While many Republicans and Democrats have focused attention on first-responder interoperability ? which is the ability of multiple fire and police agencies to talk to one another at an incident scene ? it is proving to be a stubborn problem that will be difficult to solve in two years, Farr said, making Democrats less likely to take on the issue as a top priority.

"It's too hard," he said. "They won't be able to make dramatic changes in two years."

Turf battles over homeland security still could affect Congress' role. Thompson's committee shares some homeland security jurisdiction with the House Government Reform, Judiciary, Science and Transportation committees. The House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security is likely to be chaired by Rep. David Price, D-N.C.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is expected to chair Government Reform, has been outspoken in his desire to increase oversight of homeland security contracting and acquisition policies. He issued a report in July on waste and abuse in homeland security programs.

"Mr. Waxman will be very active in increasing oversight," said Jim Horney, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank. "He will be looking at a variety of programs, including homeland security, given its size and the fact that it is a new department."

On the Senate side, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who is caucusing with the Democrats, accepted chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Lieberman and outgoing chair Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have stressed bipartisanship, and Democrats on the committee do not maintain a separate Web site, as do those on many other congressional committees. Lieberman in the past has pressed for large increases in homeland security spending, including an additional $8 billion for fiscal 2007.

Farr said that the Democratic take over of the House and Senate could result in significant new funding for homeland security initiatives.

Some business analysts believe that major federal contractors, such as the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., may see a softening of business under the new Democratic regime, because that party typically is less hawkish on defense. However, Farr does not foresee major changes.

"I don't think the Democrats can do [defense and homeland security] much differently," Farr said. "Lockheed, Boeing and Raytheon are entrenched in our infrastructure, and they are the only ones who can do some of these projects."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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