One year after Sept. 11, the nation does not have a department of homeland security that can coordinate defenses against terrorist attacks. A big snag in setting one up lies in a dispute between the White House and Senate Democrats over the president's authority in running the proposed department.
The GOP-controlled House already passed a bill that would create this all-purpose bureaucracy but would also give the new cabinet-level secretary the ability to craft a "flexible" and "contemporary" system for hiring, firing, and promoting the department's workers.
President Bush promises to veto a bill that doesn't provide such flexibility in running an effective, efficient terrorist-fighting department.
While basic employee protections are retained in the House measure (such as using a merit system in hiring and promotion), it does give the administration leeway beyond most civil-service rules to manage people.
The administration, for reasons it won't reveal, has not spelled out just how "flexible" it won't be with these 170,000 federal employees.
That's left a feeling of distrust among Democrats who rely heavily on money and votes from members of the federal workers' unions (no less than 20 unions with some 1 million members). Federal employees unions gave big-time to Democrats in the last election cycle $13 million-plus.
Under the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's bill, sponsored by its chair, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, the department's employees could have collective bargaining rights taken away from them on a case by case basis, if it can be shown those rights pose a security risk.
But Mr. Lieberman, who says he's "trying to stick with the tried and true civil service system," ought to take another look at some of the problems of that very system.
The Brookings Institution's Paul Light put it succinctly in a recent opinion piece: "[The system] is sluggish at hiring, hyper-inflated at appraising, permissive at promoting, weak-kneed at disciplining and mind-numbingly elongated at firing."
Both the administration and Congress need to hammer out a bill that not only better defines "flexibility" but brings the civil-service system into the 21st century.
A bipartisan Senate amendment by Sens. Daniel Akaka (D) of Hawaii, and George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, proposes such government-wide management reforms.
When elected officials demonstrate they can put security above politics, the country can breathe a little easier.