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Homeland war

Other editors say

A partisan fight over workers threatens department's purpose

The Washington Post

The new Department of Homeland Security must have workers who are energized and committed to the vital task of protecting against terrorist attack. It requires senior officials, managers and employees focused on the achievement of that goal.

It does not, however, need a workforce distracted by fears over its fate in a new organization. The escalating partisan fight over workers' protections threatens the department's fundamental purpose. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Bush administration officials should use the recess that begins this weekend to cool their rhetoric and find common ground on which this department can be created.

It shouldn't be that hard: All sides claim to be committed to the same national goals. But now there's a chasm of mistrust to bridge. The Republican White House has itself to blame, but congressional Democrats in their reaction are helping make things worse.

President Bush reached too far when he proposed to leave the new homeland secretary free to set up an entirely new personnel system, without a clear sense of what such sweeping power would entail, and with no compelling explanation of why existing legal authorities weren't enough to do the job.

Union leaders, already suspicious of the administration's intentions toward labor, and their Democratic allies reacted by trying to write protections for existing unions into the law. Bush upped the ante by threatening a veto. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, even as he described the issue as peripheral, began digging in his heels.

Other Democrats heated up the debate: Sen. Barbara Mikulski this week told reporters that the president's call for flexibility sounded to many union members like just a code word to go after the workers ... a chain saw, and get out of the way if you're a tree.

The bill pending before the Senate would leave the president less authority to exempt employees from union coverage for national security reasons than he has under current law. While it doesn't make much sense to start a massive reorganization by reducing the president's existing flexibility, it makes even less sense to cast the new agency as a wedge for broad civil service and management reforms. That's exactly what's suggested when Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, writes that Congress' decisions on the homeland security department can eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch.

This reorganization is supposed to improve defenses against terrorist attack ' not offer a back door to civil service revamping.

The homeland security legislation ought simply to include the specific, defined authorities, such as pay and hiring flexibility, that will help get the new department up and running.

There will be time later for adjustments if needed, and other legislative vehicles for government-wide management reforms.

The workers should not become pawns in a political struggle.