Both these strategies—rebalancing power with Congress and increasing leverage over the executive branch—came together in the president’s proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security. In the aftermath of September 11, critics argued that the administration had fumbled over key pieces of intelligence that might have alerted officials to the attacks. Calls arose almost immediately for restructuring the government to cope with the new threat.
The Bush administration fought that argument fiercely. None of the key players—Defense, State, the FBI, and CIA—wanted to be reorganized, and each one had a powerful champion in the president’s inner circle. Over the next few months, however, reporters discovered that before the attacks, two different FBI agents had warned that suspicious individuals were seeking flight training. A Minneapolis agent—Colleen Rowley, later named one of Time’s “persons of the year”—wrote a devastating 12-page memo suggesting that the field staff had informed FBI headquarters of their worries only to have headquarters fail to act. Rowley’s testimony before a congressional committee was explosive.
Bush grabbed back the reins the very same evening with a startling announcement. After months of opposing a restructuring, and on the very day that Rowley testified, he proposed creating a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The administration’s critics had long been arguing that the White House Office of Homeland Security wasn’t up to the job—that it was too little, too late. Fueled by Rowley’s testimony, members of Congress were gearing up for a searing investigation into what the administration knew, when it knew it, and what might have been done. In a single stroke, Bush flipped 180 degrees. He pulled the debate back from what the administration should have done to what Congress now should do. And he made the case for restructuring the federal government’s homeland security apparatus—on his terms.
The immediate consensus was that the creation of the new department would be a slam-dunk. No one wanted to oppose a proposal for improving coordination for fear of being blamed in case another attack took place. Some analysts floated alternative proposals for a more streamlined department, but inside observers suggested there was little chance they could pass. The consensus was that Bush’s plan was unstoppable.
Indeed, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill quickly agreed on the elements that would be brought together into the new department. The Democrats, however, raised a different objection. They were in favor of consolidating federal functions into a new department, they said, but objected to the management changes, permitting the president more flexibility with workers, that Bush had also requested.
Bush asked for the freedom to reorganize the new department, to reallocate funds, to override existing collective bargaining agreements, and more flexibility to hire and fire the department’s workers. “President Bush’s proposed Department of Homeland Security is an enormous grant of power to the executive branch,” Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate’s chief guardian of its powers, told CNN. “We must not cede this power—power the administration wants but not necessarily needs.” Bush countered by saying, “I need the flexibility to put the right people at the right place at the right time to protect the American people—and the Senate better get it right.”
The bill got hung up in interparty wrestling before the 2002 midterm elections. When the Republicans won back control of the Senate, Democrats realized they had little hope of derailing the Republican’s legislative package. They quickly negotiated the remaining differences and created the new department. The irony was that the president, committed to shrinking the size of the federal government, had presided over the creation of a new department and a big expansion of the federal work force. In the end, though, Bush got what he wanted.