The Age of Unity may indeed be upon us. The right-leaning Heritage Foundation and left-leaning Center for American Progress appear to be in significant agreement on at least one thing: The need for a BRAC-like commission of independent voices to review the tangle of homeland security laws and mandates issued in the frantic years after 9/11.
The hallelujah-moment occurred during a panel hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce on the future of homeland security as President-Elect Obama gears up to take the reins in Washington.
James Carafano, Heritage’s homeland security expert, joined wits with Michael Signer, who is heading the Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The panel was moderated by Fran Townsend, who was President Bush’s chair for the White House Homeland Security Council and who now serves as a consultant to the Chamber.
The discussion itself was lively and a reminder that bipartisanship is not necessarily the result of good manners and better intentions. Carafano and Signer held very different views on a variety of issues (though Signer was more diplomatic in shading his differences while Carafano clearly relished dishing contrarian views). The differing worldviews of Carafano and Signer highlighted the fact that intelligent and knowledgeable individuals who hold strong views can disagree without necessarily being “partisan.” Which means the Era of Reform may not be as simple as a change of administrations.
For example, one evident difference between the panelists emerged over the fast-approaching deadlines related to scanning (physically scanning) 100 percent of all cargo that comes into the country. Barack Obama has indicated his support for 100-percent scanning, and one of his top homeland security advisers (P.J. Crowley, also a fellow at the Center for American Progress and who was originally slotted to join Carafano at the Chamber event) has even penned a white paper suggesting that the 100-percent scanning model needs to be applied more extensively to the air cargo industry.
Carafano, on the other hand, has assailed the idea of 100-percent scanning as unworkable. Indeed, at the forum he noted (I’m paraphrasing): “The number of vulnerabilities facing America is infinite. After we invest all of the resources towards this one unworkable solution, we’re still faced with infinity minus one.”
However, even Carafano acknowledged that the strong politics behind the 100-percent scanning mandate (it provides wonderful cover for members of Congress to go home to their districts and claim that they are doing something to protect the homeland) would make it very difficult to repeal this admittedly terrible piece of legislation.
While it was unclear whether Signer agreed with Carafano’s assessment of the value of 100-percent scanning, he did agree with Carafano’s larger point that there are a number examples of legislation pushed through Congress that are political props that add little to the security of the nation or even unintentinally undermine oursecurity. And he agreed that few members of Congress are likely to oppose such bad legislation because of the sheer political value they hold. Nobody wants to be the one to say “I’m opposed to making our country safer” even if they know that legislation in question does no such thing.
The resulting dialogue was entertaining, enlightening and may potentially serve as a catalyst for a much-needed reform model. Carafano laundry listed a slew of laws and regulations he felt were self-defeating or amount to costly examples of security theater (prompting Townsend to quip that she was glad she wasn’t leading the Homeland Security Council anymore) and suggested the need for a commission of independent auditors, similar to the 9/11 Commission, to review them. The group would be made up of respected bipartisan authorities on homeland security to review all of the laws, mandates and regulations issued over the previous years and make recommendations on eliminating the bad ones.
Signer agreed that this might indeed be the most practical way forward to finding a way to reform laws that are politically popular but, in the end, have minimal or even counter-productive results. By creating a BRAC-like commission with a forced up-or-down vote, the politics are somewhat taken off the table – much in the same way that Congress was forced to vote up or down on the politically charged BRAC recommendations to close military bases.
Could this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, Washington’s own Rick and Renault?
A cynic might suggest – isn’t that what Congress is supposed to do? But everybody’s a cynic – until they have to vote.