BioterrorismCongress considering biodefense measure

Published 15 May 2012

H.R. 2356, the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011, will soon be debated before four different House committees, before going to the Senate to be debated further – all this four years after a congressionally mandated commission defined bioterrorism as a grave threat to the United States; critics charge that the reason is the unwieldy and dysfunctional manner in which Congress oversees DHS: currently there are 108 congressional committees and subcommittees with oversight responsibilities for different parts of DHS

Biodefense efforts confounded by congressional inertia // Source: umdnj.edu

H.R. 2356, the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011, will soon be debated before four House committees: Energy and Commerce, Transportation and Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs, and Select Intelligence. It will then go to the Senate gets a chance to weigh in.

All agree that this is an important piece of legislation. It calls for developing a national biodefense plan and a coordinated budget across government departments and agencies – in a way similar to the way the U.S. federal government’s has been handling nuclear and cybersecurity issues.

The bill would also require the appointment of a special assistant to the president for biodefense, a position which existed under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but the responsibilities of which the Obama administration has divided among several officials.

The Huffington Post notes that it has taken four years for the legislation, mandated by a congressional commission which described bioterrorisn as a grave threat to the United States, to arrive at this stage.

Critics say that the reason is unwieldy and dysfunctional manner in which Congress oversees DHS. The Department of Homeland Security was created by bringing twenty-two federal agencies under one departmental roof. Trouble is, the various congressional committees and subcommittees overseeing those twenty-two agencies have stubbornly refused to give up their – the committees’ – jurisdiction over these agencies, even though these agencies are now part of a single government department.

The result: currently there are 108 congressional committees and subcommittees with oversight responsibilities for different parts of DHS.

Congress has organized itself in a way to make it impossible for anything related to terrorism to be enacted,” said former Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida), told the Huffington Post. Graham, who was co-chair of the WMD Commission, said that the usual partisan bickering plays second fiddle to bureaucratic inertia when it comes to homeland security issues.

The greatest WMD threat facing the United States is not nuclear or chemical or radiological. It’s biological,” Graham told the Post. “As our most significant threat, it deserves to have a permanent, accountable, sufficient visibility so that this issue can be kept before the public.”

Other experts who spoke with the Post agree with graham. “Efforts now are being made to solve most key problems via inter-agency committees. From personal experience during the post 9/11 period, I can attest to the fact that this seldom works well — if it works at all,” said D. A. Henderson, a scholar at the Center for Biosecurity who is active the effort to eradicate smallpox. “It is like having an orchestra with no conductor, albeit with individual leads for each instrumental section.”

Bob Kadlec, who was special assistant for biodefense policy in the Bush administration, agreed. “We are not well served by decentralization,” Kadlec said. “No one’s in charge” and those who share responsibilities “don’t always work collegially.”

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