How Powerful Should He Be?

Even as George W. Bush released an executive order detailing the job of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the plan hit a snag: Congress. The House and Senate were already at work on competing organizational approaches that would radically expand the office. What's at issue?

Several recent commissions have labored over the problem of homeland defense. All described a system in disarray: more than 40 federal departments and agencies with competing or overlapping responsibilities, including heavyweights like the CIA, the FBI and the Defense Department. One group headed by Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore recommended a cabinet-level presidential adviser to corral the chaos, the "czar model." Another, led by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, proposed a new cabinet department with its own bureaucracy. Their concern: without budget authority, the director's power depends on his relationship with the president.

Bush, a former governor, opted for Gilmore's approach. Congress is leaning toward the Hart-Rudman plan. Two bills, one from Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry and another from Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, would turn Ridge's post into a Senate-confirmed cabinet position, backed by a department that would run FEMA, the Coast Guard, Customs, the Border Patrol and other agencies. "Governor Ridge ought to have at least as much power as he had when he was governor of Pennsylvania," Lieberman told NEWSWEEK. Thornberry and Lieberman admit it will be tough to pass legislation expanding the power of the Homeland Security office. "If the White House feels very strongly that they want it the way they proposed it, it's going to be hard to pass legislation to do more than that," says Lieberman. And the White House has dug in. "We don't believe other plans are necessary," says a Bush aide. "The office is already created."

But as Homeland Security staffers moved into the Old Executive Office Building, even one Bush adviser had doubts. The information might be just as "stovepiped" as it was before Sept. 11, he complains. "They seem to be setting up the sort of bureaucracy that got us in trouble in the first place."

So where does Ridge go now? On the legislative side, a proposal by Sen. Bob Graham could work as a compromise, sticking to the czar model (with Senate approval) but giving Ridge extra budget authority. Ridge himself is hard at work. He reached out to congressional leaders last week, speaking by phone with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Republican Conference Chair J. C. Watts. The White House has also e-mailed governors, asking for feedback on deploying the National Guard to airports and for ideas on clearing commercial-traffic delays at border crossings. "How many of you have access to secure phone lines?" the e-mail asked the governors. "Did you at some point receive a classified or top-secret clearance from the FBI? When and for what purpose?" Ridge plans to meet with congressional leaders this week. When Congress is trying to rewrite your job description before you've warmed the chair, every friend helps.