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Facing security challenges
By Don Young


December 22, 2004

Recently, former Speakers of the House Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley called for the consolidation of oversight and legislative jurisdiction over homeland security matters into a permanent Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives ("Protecting the Homeland," Dec. 8). As someone who has worked on the issue of homeland security for much of my 31-year career in Congress, I feel compelled to present an alternative viewpoint.

The former speakers cited the September 11 commission report's suggestion that the congressional committees "did not see combating international terrorism as a top priority." What was absent before September 11 was a national consensus that terrorism was a top priority. The horrific attacks of September 11 changed this attitude and the committees immediately began moving effective and sweeping homeland security legislation through the Congress. This swift action was possible because the committees had the expertise to address many of the vulnerabilities revealed on September 11.

There are two reasons for maintaining the role of the three House committees (not 88), which currently have jurisdiction over roughly 80 percent of the department's budget, personnel and policy: 1) the ability of Congress to provide a check and balance to the extraordinary new powers of the executive branch and 2) committee expertise.

Homeland security must be carefully balanced with safety, economics and civil rights. A committee that imposes draconian new inspection methods on the transportation industry or allows ever greater intrusions on our personal liberties could do more harm than good by making it too difficult or expensive for the average person to travel or by diminishing our rights to such an extent that we no longer know what it is to be free.

There must be a careful balance between what is necessary to protect us from those who would do us harm, and what is necessary to protect fundamental rights, economic prosperity and aviation safety generally. How will a committee whose sole focus is security balance these competing interests?

Member expertise and institutional knowledge are absolutely essential to producing effective legislation. The expertise necessary to produce effective, balanced legislation takes years and even decades to develop. The simple fact is that the regular standing committees produced virtually all of the homeland security laws that are keeping America safe, because they were the only committees with the capacity to do so. The Senate understands this reality and has largely left its committee structure alone.

It is incomprehensible to me why the House would choose to throw this capacity away and rely on an inexperienced and unproven committee. In my opinion, homeland security is far too important to run that risk.

In closing, while I certainly respect the opinions of my former colleagues, to suggest that Congress, in its current form, is unable or unwilling to address the important security challenges that face us is to ignore the last three years of congressional action. From transportation to law enforcement, Congress, through its existing structure, has acted repeatedly to address those flaws and vulnerabilities exposed by the attacks of September 11. On Dec. 7, Congress enacted broad intelligence reform, again, through the existing structure. We do not need a new committee to solve our problems. What we needed before September 11, which we have now, is the will to act.



Note: Rep. Don Young (AK -R) is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and author of several bills addressing post-September 11 security.



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