CHICAGO -- When America had an energy crisis, our leaders responded by creating the Department of Energy. When we perceived serious failures by our schools, the Department of Education was formed. Likewise, the terrorist threat that became apparent last Sept. 11 prompted the Bush administration to propose a Department of Homeland Security. But our experience with those other national emergencies raises a question: Why bother?
The natural impulse of elected leaders when confronted by any problem, big or small, is to do something, if only to avoid the charge of doing nothing. So even though Congress hasn't granted the president his request just yet, it's virtually inevitable that the federal government will soon have another department.
It's part of the ceaseless cycle of Washington: New bureaucracies come and new bureaucracies stay. A crisis may pass, but never the department it spawned. The Energy and Education departments haven't solved many problems, but few politicians would dream of getting rid of them.
Likewise with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. If Congress approves it and more attacks take place, lawmakers can say they tried. If they refuse, though, any future terrorist atrocities will be ascribed to their inaction.
The only real dispute between Democrats and Republicans is over whether the new agency should be subject to the same civil service regulations as other federal departments. But everyone on Capitol Hill seems to agree on the main point, which is that the way to defeat al-Qaida is by pelting it with revised organizational charts.
The administration wants to consolidate 22 agencies under one roof, creating a huge new department with 170,000 employees and a yearly budget of $37.5 billion. It argues that this will eliminate the "current confusing patchwork of government activities" and promote greater cooperation among these entities to fight terror.
But there is no reason to think that if the DHS had existed a year ago or five years ago, it would have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. A July report by a House subcommittee said the government failed to uncover the plot in advance because of mistakes by three agencies: the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency. Each of them had information that they failed to act on. None would be part of the DHS.
So what's the point? The Customs Service, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Secret Service, and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have numerous duties, including many that have nothing to do with foiling violent fanatics. Putting them all in the same building doesn't ensure that they will perform their tasks any better or work together any better. The military services all report to the secretary of defense, but they sometimes give the impression that their real enemies are each other.
Things might function better if this massive reorganization meant that some other department could be closed down. Or if it fulfilled the administration's promise of "eliminating as many redundant and duplicative functions as possible." But if that were true, the change would yield a big budgetary savings. In fact, the White House only claims that spending won't actually increase.
Maybe the Enron board of directors is gullible enough to believe that. Independent Institute scholar Robert Higgs, author of the landmark 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, said in a telephone interview, "Putting all these agencies together will create a very potent organization with a lot of clout in bargaining for budgets. They'll get more money than if they remained dispersed."
A study by the Brookings Institution says the estimate of 170,000 employees in the new department is probably understated by at least 30,000. It does not inspire optimism to hear that the president wants to add one new deputy secretary, five undersecretaries, and as many as 16 assistant secretaries.
But enlarging the government merely demands money, of which the American taxpayers are believed to have an endless supply. What should be far more alarming is that this undertaking will distract attention from the problem it's supposed to address. "The danger," says the Brookings study, "is that top managers will be preoccupied for months, if not years, with getting the reorganization right" instead of "taking concrete action to counter the terrorist threat at home."
Planning the installation of a state-of-the-art sprinkler system in your home may be a good idea, but if a fire erupts, you're better off trying to put it out with the tools that are immediately available. If the terrorist threat is not urgent, we'd be better off without the new department. And if it is urgent? Ditto.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.