Getting the Most Out of Homeland Security

by MARK WEISBROT

In a final burst of shameless opportunism for the legislative year 2002, the President and his party pushed their “homeland security” bill through Congress. The bill was laden with pork and gifts to special interests. Among the most ostentatious was a reward for corporations who found security far from their homeland: those who had set up foreign headquarters (sometimes little more than a mailbox in a tax haven like Bermuda) in order to evade US taxes would be made eligible for government contracts.

The legislation also grants the President broad powers to deny up to 170,000 federal workers their collective bargaining rights and civil service protections in the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

The Republicans were able to intimidate Congressional Democratswhich is about as difficult these days as intimidating the average squirrel on the Capitol groundsby threatening to portray them as obstructing necessary security measures. According to the pundits and pollsters that interpret these events, the Democrats had already lost two seats and their Senate majority because they had been tainted in this way. So how could they put up a fight?

But the Democrats got rolled on this legislation, as in the election generally, because they allowed President Bush to frame the issue dishonestly. It didn’t help that most of the media went along for the ride. Mr. Bush was never forced to answer why he might need to revoke the rights of federal workers. There are unionized employees in the Department of Defense as well as other agencies that contain employees who will be moved to the new Department of Homeland Security. No oneincluding the Presidenthas made the case that collective bargaining has impaired the functioning of these agencies.

Mr. Bush did claim that union opposition to having customs officials wear radiation detectors could delay the implementation of this security measure for “a long period of time.” This turned out to be a fabrication, as the issue had already been settled.

Yet in this increasingly Orwellian society where Ignorance is Truth and Homeland Security is Freedom, those who were blatantly exploiting the security issue to advance their agenda were able to portray their Democratic opponents as holding up national security legislation for the sake of “special interests.”

As it turned out, three of the most outrageous special interest clauses attached by House Republicans to the Homeland Security bill were too far over the top for even their Republican Senate colleagues. These included the federal contracts provision for tax evaders; special protection from lawsuits for pharmaceutical companies; and the establishment of a new research center for domestic security issues, which was expected to be placed at Texas A&M University (favored by powerful Republicans).

Facing a revolt from within, the Senate Republican leadership extracted a promise from their House counterparts that Congress would change these provisions next year.

It remains to be seen if this promise will be kept. In the meantime the Bush administration has announced another assault on federal workers, threatening to privatize the operations that employ as much as half the Federal government’s civilian labor forceup to 850,000 employees. Once again, the Administration has offered no evidence or plan to show how this would increase efficiency or save the taxpayers’ money.

But out-sourcing government services will provide lucrative contracts for some of the Administration’s corporate friends and contributors. Those who remember the Republicans’ proposals to partially privatize Social Security will see a pattern here. The individual accounts they wanted to create would have at least 15 times the administrative costs as the present system, and drain needed tax revenue from the system. But there was a payoff — for the Wall Street financial firms that would manage the accounts.

Senator Lincoln Chaffee, a Republican from Rhode Island, told the press that most senators were outraged at some of the provisions attached to the Homeland Security bill.

“It was a question for me how arrogant we were going to be after we have the White House and both houses of Congress. Do we just assume that might makes right and anything goes?”

Well, maybe. If they can get away with it.

MARK WEISBROT is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C. and the co-author of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

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