Bush reinvents himself as a government reinventer.

Bush reinvents himself as a government reinventer.

Bush reinvents himself as a government reinventer.

Politics and policy.
June 7 2002 6:45 PM

Reorganizing Government

Does Bush's Department of Homeland Security make sense?

Not long ago, Al Gore was going around the country bragging about "reinventing government," and Republicans, led by George W. Bush, were making fun of him. Gore claimed that reinventing government wasn't the same as expanding it. Republicans pointed out that while Gore and President Clinton shuffled bureaucrats and pared the federal work force, spending grew.

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Now it's Bush who's peddling the illusion of a huge, cost-free government initiative. He's pledging to "reorganize" the government to fight terrorism by creating a new Cabinet-level agency—the Department of Homeland Security—without acknowledging that in terms of both money and efficiency, no such reorganization can be cost-free. "Information must be fully shared, so we can follow every lead," Bush demanded in his speech to the nation last night. But not every lead can be followed, just as not every need can be funded, and not every crisis warrants a Cabinet-level department.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

"The reason to create this department is not to [increase] the size of government, but to increase its focus and effectiveness," Bush promised. "By ending duplication and overlap, we will spend less on overhead." Sound familiar? As conservatives often note, this is the kind of thing liberals always say when they launch new programs. The problem isn't that bigger government is the reason for creating new departments. The problem is that it's the effect of creating new departments.

The other reformist fallacy Bush has embraced is that if you shove a bunch of multipurpose agencies into one department, you "end duplication and overlap." Not so. If Agency X in Department X deals with Problems X and Y, and Agency Z in Department Z deals with Problems Y and Z, it seems logical to tear Agency X and Agency Z out of their respective departments and put them in a new Department Y committed to Problem Y. Poof—no more duplication when dealing with Problem Y. But what about Problems X and Z? Now all of the people in the two reshuffled agencies who were working on X and Z are stuck in a department devoted to Y. So the next time Problem X or Z becomes urgent, you've created the same problems of overlap, fragmentation, and back-seat priority with regard to those problems that you eliminated with regard to Problem Y.

To see how this works, look at the examples Bush gave in his speech. "The Coast Guard has several missions, from search and rescue to maritime treaty enforcement," he noted. "The Customs Service, among other duties, collects tariffs and prevents smuggling." The new Department of Homeland Security would include both of these agencies, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others, in order to unite them in one "overriding" mission. As Bush put it, "Employees of this new agency will come to work every morning knowing their most important job is to protect their fellow citizens."

But what about people at the Coast Guard who do search and rescue? What about those who enforce maritime treaties? What about people at Customs who collect tariffs? What about people at FEMA who deal with hurricane damage? Do you want these people stuck in a department devoted single-mindedly to homeland security? To illustrate what he has in mind, Bush pointed to President Truman's creation of the National Security Council "to bring together defense, intelligence, and diplomacy." Has the NSC really simplified these tasks? Or has it created another layer of bureaucracy overlapping with the military, the State Department, the CIA, and FBI?

Even the simplicity of the new department's stated mission is suspect. Bush declared that it will "control our borders," "respond quickly and effectively to emergencies," "develop technologies that detect biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons," "discover the drugs and treatments to best protect our citizens," and "review intelligence and law enforcement information from all agencies [to] produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland." These, said Bush, will be the department's "four primary tasks." Four primary tasks? That's a contradiction in terms. (I count five, but maybe my math is fuzzy.) How often will border control, emergency response, and drug research have anything to do with each other? And how often will they be impeded by having been shoved together in a department assigned to fight terrorism?

In his speech and in remarks this morning, Bush suggested that opponents of his reorganization plan were concerned about protecting their "turf." No doubt many are. But just as there's nothing inherently noble or useful in protecting turf, there's nothing inherently noble or useful in tearing it up. At least, that's what conservatives used to understand.