Conservatives don't really trust Washington to do anything. Unless, that is, Washington is battling the bad guys, when conservatives suddenly trust it to do everything. The Republican decision to exclude the Department of Homeland Security from spending cuts says a great deal about politics and ideology in America.
The centerpiece of the Republican agenda is the "Pledge to America," which includes a promise to cut $100 billion in government spending--"No ifs, ands or buts about it," said new Speaker of the House, John Boehner.
Cutting spending in Washington is easier said than done, however, and Republicans have been vague about which programs will face the ax.
So let's pick one obvious target: the Department of Homeland Security. Created after 9/11, and tasked with the protection of domestic security, the DHS has grown into the third-largest cabinet department, with over 200,000 employees.
Critics have long pointed to the exceptional waste and inefficiency at Homeland Security. During the first five years of its existence, one third of all DHS's contracting spending--or $15 billion--ended up as "failed contracts," running over-budget, facing delays, or being canceled.
Meanwhile, audits found that almost half of the purchases made by Homeland Security employees on government-issued credit cards were not properly pre-authorized. Secret Service officers spent $7,000 on iPods for "data storage." Over $200 was paid for a beer brewing kit.
Homeland Security offers a bonanza of pork to districts that face virtually no terrorist threat. The Blackfeet Nation of Montana received nearly half a million dollars in fiscal year 2010, "to help strengthen the nation against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks."
Homeland Security is the worst place to work in the federal government. A 2006 survey of 36 federal agencies found that DHS came dead last in "job satisfaction" and "results-oriented performance." According to respondents, there was a lack of leadership, reward for innovation, and information about the running of the organization.
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, summed it up: "It seems no matter where we look at Homeland Security, we find a pattern of waste, fraud and abuse."
DHS is ripe for savings and efficiencies. The fruit isn't just low hanging--it's boxed and ready to ship. But Republicans have excluded Homeland Security from any cuts (along with defense, veterans affairs, Social Security, and Medicare).
Politics and ideology combine to curtail a rational debate about the Department of Homeland Security. Cutting DHS funding offers few votes. Quite the opposite: any politician who calls for reduced funding will face the wrath of special interests. And if a future terrorist attack could be linked--even tangentially--to earlier cuts, it might be career ending (this is an even bigger problem for Democrats who live in dread of being labeled "weak on terror").
Ideology also prevents a rollback of the Department of Homeland Security. Conservatives are all in favor of big government--so long as it's fighting our enemies.
When Washington provides services for the good guys (or law-abiding citizens), conservatives see it as a monstrous and wasteful bureaucracy. Like a bumbling Clark Kent, government can't even tie its own shoelaces.
But when Washington battles the bad guys (criminals, terrorists, and enemy states), conservative beliefs about government turn on a dime. Clark Kent becomes Superman. The sclerotic bureaucracy morphs into the protector of the homeland and the shield of the Republic.
The same bureaucracy that can't be trusted to run healthcare, can be trusted with expansive control over the destruction of America's adversaries.
Government "death panels" are fine if they're deciding on the fate of terrorist suspects or targets for drone strikes--but abhorrent if they're making health care decisions for retirees.
And just to prove the rule, when Homeland Security forgets its true job--defeating our adversaries--and instead impedes the freedom of the good guys, conservatives are quick to rail against it.
The new airport security rules that include pat downs of sensitive areas have touched a nerve. Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips recently criticized the DHS. "It invades [Americans'] privacy while not going after terrorists."
But for a few exceptions, there's little appetite among conservatives for tackling spending at Homeland Security. Of course, such cuts would only make a small dent in the overall deficit. But the willingness to rise above politics and ideology will show just how serious Republicans (and Democrats) are about balancing the budget.