About a year ago, the commission that looked into the Sept. 11 attacks gave Congress lots of "D"s and "F"s for failing to follow through on its recommendations. Now, Democrats have a bill they say will complete what the Republican-controlled Congress left undone.
Tim Roemer, a member of the commission and a former House Democrat, says he, for one, is optimistic.
"Roughly half of the 41 recommendations have been passed and fully implemented," Roemer says. "That means we're only halfway safer in 2007. And I think this is a very promising and hopeful start to implement the remaining 9/11 Commission reforms."
Tighter Cargo Screening Would Be Required
The House is expected to consider a bill next Tuesday that would, among other things, strengthen airport security and make it easier for innocent people to get their names off the "no-fly list." It would increase funding for emergency communications and change the way Homeland Security grants are distributed.
Perhaps most controversially, it would require all passenger airplane cargo and containers awaiting shipment to U.S. ports to be screened for radiation and explosives.
"The problem is, it's a very nice idea," says Christopher Koch, president and CEO of the World Shipping Council. "It's just not very practical."
Koch and others in the industry — along with many security experts — think such a move would be extremely costly and severely impede trade. Koch notes that the U.S. government has no authority to force foreign governments to screen U.S.-bound cargo.
"If other countries don't do this, which they certainly don't have to, what does this legislation call for?" Koch says. "In effect, it calls for an embargo on the goods Americans are buying from these places, by denying them the ability to enter the country."
Sponsors of the measure say it would be more serious if someone were able to smuggle a dangerous weapon into the United States. The House isn't allowing amendments during next week's floor debate, but there will almost certainly be an effort to kill this provision in the Senate.
Oversight Gaps Remain
James Carafano, senior fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, has other concerns. He says the House bill fails to do one of the main things recommended by the 9/11 Commission — reorganize Congress so that it can keep better track of the administration.
"I think that's still a problem," Carafano says. "The point of fact is that the two congressional committees which in the House and the Senate are responsible for overseeing the Homeland Security Department, don't even have jurisdiction over all the parts of the departments. I mean, neither one of the committees has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard."
And that's one of the bigger agencies. Newly elected House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Friday defended that provision in a colloquy with Minority Whip Roy Blount. Hoyer noted that Republicans weren't eager, either — when they were in charge — to take on powerful committee chairmen by reassigning their responsibilities.
"Your side did not implement that particular recommendation," Hoyer said to Blount. "And the gentleman is correct. We have not implemented the recommendation as recommended."
More Control Over Intelligence Spending
Instead, House Democrats have come up with what Hoyer called a hybrid solution. It leaves oversight of Homeland Security as it now stands, spread among multiple committees. But it does give members of the Intelligence Committee more control over intelligence spending — something the 9/11 Commission also said was important.
For its part, the Bush administration says it's already implemented most of the commission's recommendations, and that more legislation is unnecessary — although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said it might help in some areas.
"I welcome having congressional endorsement of the recommendations that affect our department," Chertoff said.
One of those is to change the formula used to distribute Homeland Security grants. Chertoff has long pushed to target the money to the highest-risk areas, something the House bill would do.
But those efforts have been stymied in the past in the Senate, which is expected to reshape whatever the House does next week.