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Background: Homeland Security Legislation

July 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Legislation to create a new Department of Homeland security made significant progress through the Congress this week. It appears the cabinet-level department will combine the responsibilities and resources of 22 government agencies and a federal workforce of 170,000. But at a White House event this morning, President Bush warned Congress not to restrict the department’s flexibility in making personnel decisions as needed.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The new Secretary must have the freedom to get the right people in the right job at the right time and to hold them accountable. He needs the ability to move money and resources quickly in response to new threats, without all kinds of bureaucratic rules and obstacles. And when we face unprecedented threats like we’re facing, we cannot have business as usual.

Now look, I fully understand the concerns of some of the unions here in Washington. Somehow they believe that this is an attempt by the Administration to undermine the basic rights of workers. I reject that as strongly as I can state it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The President’s comments came in response to the Senate’s version of the homeland security bill that emerged from the Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday. It restricts the President’s ability to waive union, or collective bargaining, protections. Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman chairs the committee.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thousands of employees by the last estimate I’ve seen, 170,000 employees will be transferred to this new department. And it’s critically important as it begins that they not feel that they’re fighting a defensive action to protect what they’ve earned over the years, which is their collective bargaining rights.

We have included language that for agencies and employees moved into the department, would grandfather their collective bargaining rights, and would say that they nonetheless can be removed, but only if the individual’s job duty materially changes from what it was where that individual was before.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson argued Lieberman’s proposal actually would increase the rights of unionized federal workers.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: These employees, as we speak, do not enjoy the privilege of being exempted from this Presidential authority. They would be getting enhanced rights, if you want to put it that way, by becoming members of this new department, in that by making this transfer, these employees would be able to say to the President, “you cannot touch our collective bargaining rights if you make a national security.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Lieberman was at the White House this morning and the President made the most of the opportunity.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I appreciate the work of Senator Lieberman. He’s working hard. I am concerned, however, the way the committee has passed out the homeland security bill. The bill doesn’t have enough managerial flexibility, as far as I’m concerned. I look forward to working with the Senator.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Lieberman said the President shouldn’t be concerned that the worker’s rights issue can’t be resolved.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I said, Mr. President, I hope minor disagreements won’t derail our work. This bill gives you 90 percent of what you asked for. He said, “I’ll talk about that in my statement,” and he was true to his word.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the House version of the homeland security bill, moving toward passage this evening, does give the President flexibility over personnel matters. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays wrote the legislative language on the President’s authority to waive union protections.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: To exercise his national security authority under this provision, the President must pass through three gates: First, he must determine that the department’s ability to protect homeland security will be significantly and adversely affected. Then, the current law test must be met. Employee’s primary job function is in intelligence, counterintelligence, investigative, or national security work, and there an incompatibility between labor law coverage and national security in the particular agency.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Maryland Republican Connie Morella, who represents 78,000 federal workers in her suburban Washington district, warned that under the Shay’s amendment, union members moved into the new department could be left with no collective bargaining rights at all.

REP. CONNIE MORELLA: Because the new Homeland Security Agency’s mission could easily all be defined automatically as national security. I am concerned that potentially tens of thousands of employees could be prevented from being members of a union even though their work and responsibilities have not changed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Morella later joined a Democratic-led effort to restore some civil service protections that would not be available to homeland security employees under the House bill. Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich focused on whistleblower rights.

REP. DENIS KUCINICH: Whistleblower rights are workers’ rights. No worker should lose his or her job for exposing waste, cover- up, or lies by their supervisors. It is ironic that a bill to fight terrorism we have a provision to terrorize workers.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts posted a chart that argued whistleblower and other civil protections would remain in place.

REP. J.C. WATTS: The President is saying, “Give me the latitude to defend our homeland,” and we still can still guarantee all of these things. Employees won’t lose none of these benefits. They’re still in place.

KWAME HOLMAN: Differences between the House and Senate versions of the homeland security bill will be worked out in a conference committee after Congress returns from its summer recess in September.