Public Policy Update

The November election resulted in a dramatic shift in the balance of power for the new 108th Congress, with the Senate (as well as the House of Representatives) now under Republican control. Further changes are expected with the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as Senate majority leader and the election of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to replace him. Along with these structural changes will come changes in public policy with broad implications for psychology.

A certain level of disruption accompanies every election. But a change in majority party complicates matters further because committee chairs and the political balance of membership, along with committee staff and budgets, shift as a result. A lame duck session--the name given to a post-election Congress when members may have lost their seats and so have no real power left--often produces little of substance but offers a chance to begin sorting out changes and re-examining issues that were too controversial before the election. For example, what had appeared to be a doomed legislative proposal, the Homeland Security bill, regained new life in mid-November. The labor disputes that had clouded negotiations on the bill cleared, and it was passed and signed into law.

Building the Department of Homeland Security

Now the real challenges begin. If anyone thought the newly authorized Transportation Security Administration was a behemoth, it will certainly be dwarfed by the amalgam of 22 agencies that will comprise the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although the authorizing legislation will serve as a blueprint, construction delays and cost over-runs are likely. And questions of who will oversee the completion of the project and how it will be funded will add new wrinkles to the already complex process of sorting out a legislative agenda for the 108th Congress.

Many of the agencies to be folded into DHS have been authorized and funded by different--and competing--congressional committees. This has raised concerns that the DHS Secretary (Gov. Tom Ridge's nomination as secretary was still pending at Monitor press time) would spend most of the time answering inquiries from every corner of Capitol Hill. A streamlined proposal, whispered by many and formalized by the Gilmore Commission (see box), recommended that two new committees, one to authorize funds and one to appropriate funds, be created in each chamber of Congress. Although that proposal has stimulated controversy, at least on authorizing matters, it appears to be taking hold. The House has formed a Select Committee on Homeland Security, to be chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and populated by the chairs of other committees, with oversight of agencies being subsumed into DHS. The current plan calls for the replacement of the select committee by a standing committee in the 109th Congress. In the Senate, primary jurisdiction for DHS has been deeded to the Governmental Affairs Committee, to be chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Still undecided is how the appropriators will deal with funding allocations for DHS, as many subcommittees in both chambers will make a case for holding onto the purse strings of programs that have been in their charge.

Those issues aside, there remains a question of overall funding, especially given that the 107th Congress adjourned having completed only two of the 13 annual appropriations bills for 2003. Adding yet another appropriations bill that melds a $38 billion budget is awkward but also has to be viewed in the context of fiscal conservatism that comes, by fiat, with a change to a Republican majority. That fiscal tone will be further reinforced if Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) is appointed chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

Most agree that homeland security deserves to be the No. 1 priority. However, with the increasing pressure on a Republican Congress (and a Republican administration) to stick to agreed upon budget limits and with a stated goal of making the 2001 tax cut permanent, other discretionary spending has to give. The question is from where. Implementing the DHS plan is likely to be an iterative process, evolving over several years, as was the case with the creation of the Department of Defense. It is, after all, the largest transformation of government in modern times. During the reorganization, there are likely to be both gains and losses for psychology. Since DHS will house somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000 employees, some number of psychologists in government service will probably be affected. In addition, new budget priorities will likely affect agencies that provide funding for mental health services, as well as agencies that support psychological research.

But, as the intent of the legislation is to integrate several governmental divisions into a coherent whole, we should position the field of psychology to become part of that effort. The Bush administration and Congress are pulling together a new vision for homeland security, and so should we. It is incumbent upon all of us--scientists, clinicians and educators--to be thinking creatively about how and where we can fit into and advance the critical mission of DHS. To this end, APA's Public Policy Office will continue to engage congressional and federal agency staff directly on these issues and will continue to meet regularly with the staff of the Office of Homeland Security during the transition to department status. Please let us hear from you via e-mail at PPO. We would be pleased to incorporate your ideas into those discussions.

Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, is director of science policy in APA's Public Policy Office.