WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., held a press conference Friday to respond to criticism of the Homeland Security bill that was raised at a White House event held earlier in the day. Following is text of Lieberman’s statement as delivered:
Welcome. I’m proud of the work of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee—which yesterday sent to the floor a sensible and bi-partisan bill that would consolidate many disparate agencies and offices to create a strong, unified, and accountable Department of Homeland Security.
Ever since the President’s June 6 announcement of his support for a focused new department to improve our domestic defenses, my staff has been working closely with the White House to refine and improve our legislation. I’ve personally had a number of constructive discussions with the President. And I’ve been negotiating extensively with fellow Senators across party lines to transform the bill the Governmental Affairs Committee reported out in May into the comprehensive legislation we agreed to yesterday.
The end product of this careful process—which we’ve now sent to the floor, in a bi-partisan committee vote—is very similar to the President’s proposal, and to the House legislation that echoes that proposal. The overall mission and powers of the new agency are identical. The federal agencies and offices we’re consolidating into the new department are almost identical. The divisions we would create focused on emergency preparedness and response, border and transportation security, and critical infrastructure protection are nearly identical. Both our approaches would have FEMA and the Coast Guard play central roles. And both proposed models would develop new science and technology capabilities within the new department.
By any measure, this is vast common ground. Of course, this being the legislative process, there are some meaningful differences between our approach and the President’s. I strongly believe that the robust intelligence coordinating directorate our bill would create is necessary to overcome the disastrous disconnects which contributed to our failure to prevent the attacks on September 11.
Our proactive directorate on science and technology would give the department the capabilities to marshal government, business, and academia to develop and deploy the next wave of medicines, vaccines, and security devices.
And, by reforming the INS substantially as we move it into the new department, our bill works to dramatically enhance both immigration enforcement and immigration services.
Those differences and others will have to be aired, debated, and resolved. But none of them ought to delay or derail this legislation—not even close. And that’s why I’m disappointed with the emerging partisan tone of the talk in this town today, all of which seems to center around whether or not the President and Secretary should have the right to alter existing civil service and worker protections now held by the employees that will make up the new department.
Some might suggest that we just hit an iceberg. To me, it feels more like an ice cube. So this is no time for anybody to jump from the homeland security ship. The fact is, existing law—which is reaffirmed in our bill—gives the President and Secretary substantial flexibility to manage the new department. They can reward excellence, fire poorly performing employees, offer recruitment bonuses, and more. On top of that, our bill included a number of important new provisions that were specifically added during the markup to give the Secretary additional authority and flexibility to manage his employees.
The bi-partisan Voinovich/Akaka amendment will: allow the agency to hire whomever it wants, without going through a competitive hiring process, if the Office of Personnel Management determines that there’s a critical hiring need; reform outdated competitive-hiring procedures to speed up staffing of new employees; revise old rules restricting performance bonuses; and make other valuable changes.
The bottom line is the new department as we’ve designed it has the tools it desperately needs to attract and reward top-flight talent in security, intelligence, and science and technology. But we’re open to the possibility that some changes to the law might be warranted as the reorganization gets underway.
That’s why the legislation requires the Secretary to report back to Congress every six months during the reorganization process, and explicitly invites the Secretary to propose changes to the law at these review sessions that would help create a more efficient and effective department
. So let’s all tone down the rhetoric and stop sounding alarms. This is nothing but a tempest in a teapot—one that should not and must not distract us from taking on the real tempest of terrorism that continues to threaten us all. Cynics think politics is the art of making the possible impossible. Let’s not prove them right.
So the message we send today is simple: the Governmental Affairs Committee has sent a good, bi-partisan bill to the Senate floor. Our bill can, will, and should be the basis for the Senate’s final product, and when passed and reconciled with the House bill, it will be the blueprint for an effective, efficient, and empowered Department of Homeland Security, one that I am confident President Bush will sign into law. Thank you.