Congress Gives Thumbs up to Homeland Security Department

Members of Congress overswhelmingly approved legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security in one of the last actions taken before the end of this session of Congress.

Despite blocking an earlier version of the bill because of concerns about worker protections, the Senate followed the House in approving the measure. Some Democratic senators opposed the bill because it exempts government workers who are moved into the Department of Homeland Security from collective bargaining laws and civil service rules. President George W. Bush claimed such statutes could jeopardize national security.

The House voted 299-121 Wednesday night to establish the Department of Homeland Security. According to Bush, the department will have four primary tasks:

  • It will control U.S. borders, and prevent terrorists and weapons from entering the country. "The way I like to put it," said Bush, "is we need to know who's coming in, and why they're coming in, and what they're bringing in with them, and whether or not they're leaving when they say they're going to leave."
  • It will work with first responders to enable them to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies. "We need good cooperation between the federal government, the state governments and the local governments," said Bush.
  • It will oversee and sponsor research to develop technologies to detect biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and to discover drugs and treatments to protect U.S. citizens.
  • It will identify and assess threats to the country, map those threats against vulnerabilities and act to secure the country.

The bill "will enable our nation to have the tools it needs to monitor, track and prevent future terrorist acts from happening again," said Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., House speaker.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security is the largest reorganization of the government since the Department of Defense was created in 1947. Like the Defense Department and the Departments of Energy and Transportation, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security will be a member of the president's cabinet. The department will combine 22 government agencies, including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Changes proposed by the bill include:

  • Immigration: The bill brings all immigration responsibilities under the secretary of Homeland Security. Immigration services, however, will be kept separate from enforcement functions within the department. A separate director will be responsible for immigration services.
  • ATF - The bill moves the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms from the Treasury Department to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to better perform its law enforcement responsibilities. ATF revenue collection functions will remain at Treasury.
  • Airport Safety - The bill includes H.R. 4635, Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, to allow pilots to be trained and possess a gun in the cockpit of passenger planes. It also provides for a one-year waiver for airports to comply with stringent security requirements for baggage screening to make sure the work is done properly with the most up-to-date technology.
  • Coast Guard - Strengthens the Coast Guard's position as a distinct organization within the Department while retaining and performing all current missions. Identifies separate funding for Coast Guard research and development activities.

To calm Senate fears that the bill runs roughshod over the labor rights of some government workers, the bill calls for maintaining "worker protections while developing a flexible and modern workforce that can respond to a shifting threat, and protect and defend the American people."

Under the bill, union representatives are permitted to negotiate changes to current personnel policies for up to 30 days. If direct negotiations fail to yield agreement, the president will notify Congress and the issues will be referred to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) for 30 days. If the FMCS is unable to resolve a disagreement, the secretary of the Homeland Security Department will notify Congress of the proposed policy change and the reasons for the disagreement. After that, changes proposed by the secretary will be implemented.

According to the bill, "If the president finds that union presence is having a substantial, adverse impact on Homeland Security (as provided for in the House-passed bill), he may not exercise his existing authority to exclude collective bargaining units from the department until he has notified Congress and 10 days have passed."

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney claims the bill will "strip workers of their existing collective bargaining rights and civil service protections" as their jobs are transferred into the new Department of Homeland Security. The bill allows "a Bush administration political appointee [to] assert that existing collective bargaining rights are 'obstacles to the war on terror' and workers will have no recourse to protect what they have earned," he added.

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