Q & A: How to Build a Cabinet Department

How does the government build a new Cabinet-level department? In this case, through merger-and-acquisition tactics -- taking bits and pieces from elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy.

Some questions and answers about President Bush's proposal for a Department of Homeland Security:

Q: When was the last time the government created a new Cabinet agency through this type of conglomeration?

A: It hasn't been done since 1977, when the Department of Energy was created by pulling together pieces of a numfairs Department, in 1989, simply by elevating the old Veterans Administration.

Q: Does this mean the government will get bigger -- and more expensive?

A: Bush, who says he's no friend of big government, insists no. While there would be some transition costs, the new department would be made up of existing employees from other agencies. The government already is substantially increasing spending on counterterrorism and security, but the reorganization isn't supposed to expand beyond that.

Q: So if the same people would still be showing up for work, why bother shuffling them around?

A: Bush wants better coordination among all the people whose jobs relate to homeland security -- everyone from Secret Service agents to plant inspectors. Right now, they're spread out all over government -- in more than 100 different organizations -- reporting to too many different bosses.

Q: How does this affect the FBI and CIA, the main agencies for gathering intelligence and fighting terrorism?

A: Both will continue as independent entities, although the FBI already is undergoing major internal restructuring. They will be expected to share with the new department intelligence information and analysis about threats. The department is supposed to pull together intelligence from throughout the government: "Fusion" is a buzzword in Washington these days.

Q: Will that fix the intelligence problems that people have talked about since the Sept. 11 attacks?

A: Not by itself, but it's supposed to help. Experts say still more needs to be done. For example, John Cohen, a former Navy intelligence officer and White House adviser on law enforcement, says there's still a need to share more information between the federal government and state and local governments, which he calls the "front lines" of homeland security.

Q: What difference does it make if the new department has Cabinet rank?

A: In status-conscious Washington, a world of difference! Cabinet rank equals clout. It would give the new department head the authority needed to get cooperation from others in government and to have the department's voice heard. It also makes the agency's actions easier to track and more accountable to Congress and the public. Right now the government has 14 executive departments.

Q: Who would run the new department?

A: Bush is likely to tap Tom Ridge, now homeland security adviser, whose effectiveness has been hampered by his limited authority under the current setup.

Q: Who has the final say on this?

A: Congress has to approve the creation of any new Cabinet department. Paul Light, a Brookings Institution expert on the federal bureaucracy, says each congressional session produces at least a dozen proposals to create new Cabinet-level departments, for everything from food safety to women to aging Americans, but the Senate is usually their graveyard. In this case, a number of members of Congress already are pushing their own proposals for a Cabinet-level department of homeland security. So the final plan is likely to be some sort of compromise.

Q: How long will this take?

A: Bush wants it done this year, but the White House acknowledges that reorganizing the government is difficult, and raises the possibility of many turf battles within Congress and among agencies. And, once the department is created, it will still take some time to get it up and running. "It's going to take five to 10 years to gel into a department," Light predicted.