Homeland Security–No Rights, No Security

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

David H. Richardson

Q. WHY DOES NEW Jersey have all of the toxic waste dumps and the District of Columbia all the lawyers?

A. Because New Jersey had first choice.

The proposed new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would involve a massive overhaul of the federal government, combining some twenty-two agencies with 170,000 workers into one new entity.

The Coast Guard would be included, as well as the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and parts of many others. This would be the largest government reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department (DOD) in 1947.

With a resolve driven by panic, it initially seemed possible to do all of this in just three months, from the first Bush announcement on June 13, 2002 until September 11. Putting this in context, the creation of DOD took over two years.

What DHS would not be is an improvement in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The reason for this is that the two principal U.S. counterterrorism agencies, the FBI and the CIA, would be left out.

What DHS has been is a gripping soap opera for Federal workers that has continued for more than four months and will almost certainly continue into the lame duck session planned for after the November 5 election. Thus we are left to speculate as to the motives behind this.

In the course of my own involvement in this issue, I am constantly reminded of a friend who, 12-14 years ago, had a permanent job reorganizing his agency, a statistical agency with a political appointee as its head.

The pols had a problem in that they needed to update their resumes, but they had no idea what the agency was about. So they “reorganized:” My friend had an Organization Chart Plan A and an Organization Chart B, and every year or two shifted the agency back and forth between them.

Power Play

DHS has been the focus of a major legislative struggle, and has drawn in an enormous cast with complex and often contradictory motivations.

If the political structure were an individual, the diagnosis might well be attention deficit disorder. In quiet times the political structure becomes disoriented, lacks focus, and drifts. In times of crisis there is focus, but the urgent then crowds out the important.

9/11 provided that focus, and since then, every proposed policy or program has had to be related to the “war” on terrorism. In addition to the obvious support of the rescue workers, the victims and their families, we were urged to support the bombing of the Afghans, the recovery of the stock market, and even tax cuts as a contribution to the “war” on terrorism.

Shortly after 9/11, members of Congress went on the record as supporting the creation of a new agency specifically designed to fight terrorism. It made for a good spot on the evening news, plus it was safe and easy since no details were ever required.

Washington is the city of prima donnas, and in this case the supreme prima donna was Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) who actually got credit for introducing a bill to create the DHS early in 2002. This is especially ironic in that perhaps the first attempt in this area was the agency called Heimat Schutz, i.e. Homeland Security, under the Third Reich.

Last October, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge had proposed gathering together the agencies that protect the country’s borders into one agency.

The work outlining the new Department was carried out by a small group in extreme secrecy — the preferred style of the Bush Administration, as it was in the presidential election campaign — coordinated by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, with major clout from Vice President Cheney and Ridge.

As late as May 30, barely two weeks ahead of the official announcement, Ridge stated that he would advise the President to veto any bill that made his office more than advisory (which would subject it to Congressional oversight).

Meanwhile the Cabinet secretaries, none of whom were in on the secret, were “consulted” by Card in a way that they did not know that they were being consulted. At the same time, the progress of the Lieberman bill gave the Administration a read on what would and would not fly in Congress.

The result was a top-down proposal, presented as a done deal without any of the traditional trappings of consensus and collegiality which, given the terrorism panic, could pass.

Gutting Worker Rights

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), with over 200,000 members and representing over 600,000 (mostly) federal workers, was against the Lieberman bill at the start. While Lieberman did include appropriate civil service and union rights protections, it was felt that the Administration would use this bill as a vehicle to begin to remake the civil service according to its own wishes.

Without rights the civil service would degenerate into just the spoils system it was designed to replace. These are the same reasons that AFGE is against the Republican DHS bill now.

It is no secret that the Administration has declared war on the labor movement, and not just the West Coast longshore workers. In 2001 public workers comprised only 15.9% of the workforce but 44.0% of union members. Union density is 9.0% in the private sector but 37.4% in the public sector.

In addition, never having had the right to strike, public sector unions became political earlier and more completely than those in the private sector. Indeed, the theme of a recent AFGE Legislative Conference was “The Ballot Box is Our Bargaining Table.”

The Administration is also of the opinion, only partly true, that we only support Democrats. Here in the D.C. area AFGE has always endorsed several Republican Members of Congress, even occasionally when they had real opposition, in an attempt to keep doors open on both sides of the aisle.

The Republicans have responded by slaming the door. To this Administration, we might as well be sworn enemies. For the capitalists, the class struggle never ends; it’s just that the workers fight back only occasionally.

The Republican House passed the Administration version of DHS without much difficulty in July. Connie Morella (R-MD), one of the Republicans AFGE has courted over the years, introduced an amendment that would have ensured that federal employees transferred to DHS would maintain their collective bargaining rights.

Morella was able to get only one other Republican to vote with her, we lost 11 Democrats, and the amendment was defeated. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Martin Frost (D-TX) offered a losing amendment that would have preserved civil service protections for employees of the new department.

Finally, Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) offered a poison pill amendment that provided political cover. While the majority of the Shays amendment was identical to the Morella amendment, its final section allowed the President to ignore the protections.

Senior Bush Administration officials have indicated that if such amendments are enacted into law, the President would demand that the Congress give him the same anti-union, anti-federal worker authority in all federal agencies.

Polarization and Paralysis

The result was a terrific struggle in the Senate. The effect of the Republicans’ hard-line anti-labor position is that the voting bases of the existing major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are being polarized along class lines. The way to trump money in elections is with people, and the Democrats have become ever more dependent on the organized labor movement for their campaign workers.

Unfortunately, the consequence has not been that labor has come to control the Democratic office holders, but almost the reverse. Congress consists of 535 small businesses, and labor, for all of its contributions, ends up as a supplicant rather than the power center.

In office, the real difference between the parties is that the Democrats return our phone calls. Despite labor’s pretensions to speak for all working people, we are pretty firmly put in our place.

One result is that Democratic politicians like Lieberman do not see politics in terms of working-class values, and hence are always in search of orientation. And Lieberman, far from being the worst among politicians, is actually one of the best, at least in terms of accomplishments.

According to the Washington Post, Lieberman said last spring that “Before one decides to run for the presidency, and enter the New Hampshire primary, there’s an important unofficial primary: the ideas and values primary.”

Yet Lieberman, lacking the orientation of class values, found himself searching for an appropriate public image. The image he apparently chose was that of Michael Dukakis, who ran as the competent Democrat against Bush I. And in his vision of competence, Lieberman ignored the federal workers in introducing his DHS bill.

In addition, Lieberman was played for the fool as his bill ended up as the stalking horse for the much worse Administration proposal. To his credit, Lieberman was the main organizer of a September rally that featured, along with several liberal Democratic Senators, scores of AFGE activists including President Denise Dukes of the AFGE Local at FEMA who worked long hours and spent weeks away from home after 9/11.

Also there was a New York firefighter who, though off-duty, responded to 9/11 and nearly lost his life. For those who might not know, Lieberman explained that “The enemy here is Osama bin Laden, not [AFGE National President] Bobby Harnage.”

Defensive Delay

In a defensive struggle, so far AFGE, with some very important help from the AFL-CIO, has been able to delay any decisive negative outcome.

One Democratic Senator, Zell Miller (D-GA), joined with reactionary Phil Gramm (R-TX) to introduce the Administration’s anti-union amendment, while Lincoln Chafee’s (R-RI) more friendly amendment was cosponsored by Ben Nelson (D-NE) and John Breaux (D-LA). Aside from the single exceptions of Miller and Chafee, this battle is drawn on strict party lines.

On October 17 Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) offered the Republicans a chance for a straight up-and-down vote on Miller-Gramm, followed by an up-or-down vote on Chafee-Nelson-Breaux. The Republicans declined, and therefore are exposed as the ones blocking DHS ahead of the election.

While the Democrats have been able to gain a bit of a publicity advantage, they have lost heavily in the battle over Homeland Security together with the incipient Bush war.

Since 9/11, thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by bombing; neither bin Laden nor Mullah Omar have been found; the economy and the stock market have tanked; America’s corporate elite are exposed as a bunch of crooks. Yet it seems none of this will be on voters’ minds November 5. Go figure.

ATC 101, November-December 2002