The Environment We’re In

Another fire-breathing partisan impasse reared into view this week, as the war on terrorism fell hostage to the Washington political wars.

The countdown to federal fail ends Friday, by which time Congress will either pass a new budget for the Department of Homeland Security or send some 30,000 employees on furlough while the rest continue to work without paychecks — we hope.

Actually, it’s not quite as apocalyptic as it sounds. Most of the people to be sent home are office employees; the front-line agents guarding the borders, airports, seaports and the president of the United States will be required by law to stay on the job, because what they do is classified as essential to the nation’s safety.

This test of the patriotism of about 240,000 security personnel is an adventure we could probably live without. No doubt, we could rely on the sense of responsibility of the men and women of Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard to show up for work. But we prefer not to think of how the lack of a paycheck will affect their morale and their diligence, or how long they would be willing to X-ray and pat down millions of travelers while Congress extricates itself from its latest choke hold.

The issue holding up the works is President Obama’s executive order on immigration, granting legal status to four million undocumented immigrants and allowing them to work legally in the U.S. for up to three years. Basically, the Republicans are against it, the Democrats are for it.

Meantime, another branch of the government has graciously provided a possible way out: a Feb. 16 federal court ruling temporarily delaying implementation of the president’s executive order.

“Now we’ve got a perfect reason to not shut [DHS] down because the courts have decided, at least initially, in our favor,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), aspiring to be that contemporary anomaly, a voice of reason.

But some think “the tug has to come, and better now than later,” to quote an early Republican hero (Lincoln on the eve of civil war).

That’s because even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) relents on tying the DHS funding to immigration policy, it would likely only postpone the inevitable shootout with the Obama administration.

Still, there is hope. As Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said on CNN this week, “I’m hoping someone will exercise some leadership.”

Of course, Johnson was no great help to his own cause when, on Sunday, he sounded what appeared to be a false alarm. After a video threatening a terror attack on the Mall of America in Minnesota was released, purportedly by a Somali group linked to al-Qaida, the DHS secretary hastened to warn:

“If anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful. There will be enhanced security there, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important, and it’s the environment we’re in, frankly.

“I’m not telling people to not go to the mall,” Johnson added, hoping to avoid mass hysteria, but he explained, “I think that there needs to be an awareness.”

Just a few hours later, after security enhancements were presumably underway — and public anxiety likewise enhanced — a DHS spokeswoman said in a statement, “We are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center.”

Such conspicuous incompetence is itself a threat to public safety. It invites ridicule (a new counter-terrorist tool — people wearing buttons that say “Fight Terror — Be Careful”), and may even embolden terrorists, who must be delighted that a mere tough-talking video can so rattle the security apparatus of the most powerful nation on earth.

It might also prompt senators and congressmen of both parties to take a harder look at the $40 billion budget of the Department of Homeland Security. The size of the bill is astounding, and the time for rubber-stamping any and every allocation tagged for homeland security without real scrutiny is over.

To borrow a phrase from Mr. Johnson, it behooves the lawmakers to be “particularly careful.”

Just one thing: Pass the budget first to keep essential services going. Then find the waste for next time.