As President Obama takes leadership in Washington, he is immediately faced with a host of urgent matters affecting the nation’s economic, national and homeland security. As he and his staff struggle with the big decisions – how to get our economy back on track, how to judiciously balance combat resources in Iraq and Afghanistan – he must also address a host of seemingly less pressing administrative matters, a number of which lie in the homeland security realm.

For example, should the President leave FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security, or cut it out and make it a stand-along agency as some have suggested? Should he merge the White House Homeland Security Council (HSC) with the National Security Council (NSC), as a growing chorus of voices are urging? These matters may seem more related to management and infrastructure, and therefore less critical than some of the big questions raised above. I would submit, however, that in some ways they are more important because they will significantly influence the answers to the large questions.

If FEMA is isolated from the rest of DHS, it’s emergency response efforts to a crisis (whether a hurricane or a terrorist attack) will be quite different than if it is working hand-in-hand with other first-responders at DHS. Similarly, while there are credible arguments for merging the HSC with the NSC, doing so would certainly affect the decision-making process for homeland security matters.

Indeed, one of my concerns with such a merger is the potential for decision making paralysis. The National Security Council coordinates the responses of various federal agencies to our most urgent external threats. General Jones, the president’s national security advisor, must facilitate and find consensus among the government’s most powerful leaders – from the Secretaries of Defense, State and Treasury to the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the National Director of Intelligence. Their first day on the job, these individuals must come to grips with, and provide strategic planning for, America’s involvement in Iraq, our battle against al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, the current tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and the worrisome implications of an increasingly authoritarian Russia. These are just a few of the major issues sitting on the table today at the NSC.

If the Homeland Security Council were merged into the NSC infrastructure, there is a danger that it would become a secondary voice unable to compete with those that are first and foremost concerned with breaking international crisis. Distracted by conflict between Pakistan and India and alarming Russian troop movements near the Georgian border, for example, would the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State be as concerned with, say, wildfires in California or new intelligence linking certain European banks to terrorist money laundering schemes? These are critical matters related to our homeland security, not the purview of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unless the HSC adviser had the ear of the President, there would be a significant risk that urgent matters related to the homeland would be put on the backburner while urgent matters related to the national security abroad were addressed. Critical decisions might be presented to the President without the necessary vetting and predecisional debate.

On the other hand, if you have strong leadership at the Department of Homeland Security, there might be the temptation to move forward with policy that hasn’t been fully vetted by the White House. Created by the merger of 22 formerly different federal agencies, DHS’s jurisdiction and reach spans across the government. It’s policies don’t affect DHS only; they affect numerous other federal agencies. It’s imperative that the White House provide oversight. However, if the NSC is distracted with multiple international crises, the Secretary of Homeland Security may feel the need to act if her urgent policies are not getting the focus they need at the NSC. As we learned with Hurricane Katrina, DHS is also dealing with life and death matters that require prompt attention and clear decisionmaking – decisionmaking that cannot be put on the backburner.

In the end, either model – separate councils for national security and homeland security or a merged and expanded NSC – can work. However, if a merger were to occur, it is critical that the decisonmaking process is clear; that proper vetting and oversight can occur; and that there is an unobstructed avenue direct to the president’s ear.