Democratic leaders preparing to take control of Congress have vowed to push through a host of reforms recommended two years ago by the Sept. 11 commission, such as better port security and improved radio communications for first responders, but many of the most controversial changes are likely to face obstacles even with Capitol Hill in Democratic hands, according to experts and legislative aides.
Presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made implementing the commission's recommendations one of the centerpieces of her "first 100 hours" legislative agenda, with particular focus on requiring radiation scans of all cargo that arrives by sea.
Other proposals include more money for rail security and hiring more Border Patrol agents and aviation screeners. Some Democrats also want to declassify intelligence agencies' budgets, improve management of terrorist watch lists, toughen regulation of chemical plants and improve privacy safeguards.
"As part of the first 100 hours, we will try to the best of our ability to address them in a more complete fashion than the piecemeal approach that Congress has taken thus far," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, referring to the commission's recommendations. "On some of the more controversial issues of cargo screening and other things, I think we can work out a compromise."
Resistence to some ideas
Homeland security experts cautioned that Democratic control of Congress will not guarantee implementation of some of the commission's most controversial suggestions, which have languished because of entrenched political and bureaucratic obstacles.
A prime example is the commission's call to base the federal government's homeland security funding on the actual risk of terrorist attacks or other calamities -- an approach that would generally benefit large metropolitan areas at the expense of smaller cities and rural regions. Although such an approach would favor regions represented by Democrats, lawmakers have preferred to spread dollars to as many jurisdictions as possible.
"It's easy to say they'll implement the 9/11 recommendations. But some of the recommendations have not been implemented because they've been so hard to swallow," said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. "It remains to be seen if the Democrats have an answer to that."
Democrats will face the usual divisions between the House and the Senate, as well as tensions between liberals and centrists within their own party. The Senate homeland security committee is likely to be led by Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a former Democrat who is more moderate than his House colleagues and who just completed a bruising reelection campaign in which many Democrats opposed him after he lost in the primary.
Panel has issued harsh criticism
The bipartisan Sept. 11 panel released its report in 2004. It subsequently issued admonishments to the Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress for failing to enact many of its major recommendations.
In a December 2005 "final report card," the commission gave the government mediocre to failing grades in numerous areas, including screening airline passengers and improving first responders' communication systems. Many commissioners have also pointed to mixed results in attempting to merge terrorism watch lists maintained by the FBI and other agencies.
More than talk?
Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican New Jersey governor who served as the commission's chairman, said yesterday that some recommendations that have languished -- including the reservation of broadcast spectrum for emergency responders and improvements in border security -- would be relatively easy to implement if Democrats are determined.
But he acknowledged that other changes are politically difficult, including the panel's call for restructuring the way Congress oversees and pays for homeland security programs. A Democratic leadership source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the plans are not final, said Pelosi is likely to reorganize House committees to streamline jurisdiction over security matters.
"There's a whole realm of things that need to be done," Kean said. "The fact that the new speaker wants to make it a priority, I congratulate her."
Democrats have not spelled out how they intend to pay for their initiatives. In 2006, they unsuccessfully proposed $3 billion for rail security and $5 billion for first-responder communications equipment.
No one has figured out how to scan all cargo reliably in real-world settings.
"I should feel relieved, but I don't," said Carie Lemack, co-founder of Families of September 11 and head of a national security consulting firm.
Pork still king of the Hill
Lemack said some of the commission's recommendations are relatively easy but have lacked the political backing to move forward. She cited naming a senior adviser to the president to oversee the lockdown of nuclear weapon materials worldwide and declassifying intelligence agencies' budgets.
James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said lawmakers from both parties have signaled that they are unwilling to dispense homeland security funding based on risk, preferring the locality-based, pork-barrel funding that is popular at election time.
"What's left on the table is really, really hard and can't be legislated into existence, or really, really stupid and shouldn't be done anyway," Carafano said.
Some recommendations highlighted by Democrats are already in the works but face technical hurdles. These include efforts to put in place a border entry and exit screening system and to streamline the terror watch lists. A battle also looms over whether to pay for or delay REAL ID, a multibillion-dollar effort to standardize state driver's licenses.
Other proposals by House Democrats, including hiring 2,000 new Border Patrol agents a year for five years and building a "virtual fence" using sensors and other technology, are already being adopted by the Bush administration.