Homeland Security Head Implies His Current Budget Puts the Country at Risk
Policy + Politics

Homeland Security Head Implies His Current Budget Puts the Country at Risk

House Republicans, seeking to retaliate against President Obama’s controversial executive order protecting more than four million illegal immigrants from deportation, plan to keep the department responsible for implementing the order on a short budgetary leash through early next year. 

GOP lawmakers revealed a strategy Tuesday to fund most of the government through next September – the end of the current fiscal year – but provide only a short-term funding extension, or a “continuing resolution,” for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The massive DHS oversees immigration and border security and will implement the president’s immigration action.

Related: GOP Plan Could Turn the Tables on Obama 

Republicans say their strategy will signal their outrage over Obama’s executive overreach and give the party time to consider additional action in March, when the GOP will control both chambers of Congress. 

The head of the DHS, Jeh Johnson, and some congressional Democrats warned that Republicans could endanger the country by hamstringing a department with a $61 billion annual operating budget (including mandatory spending) and 240,000 employees. DHS was created after 9/11 specifically to protect the U.S. from terror attacks. 

Yesterday, Johnson warned that imposition of a CR would impede efforts to bolster Secret Service operations – one of the two dozen law enforcement, customs, and border and airport security agencies and divisions that were consolidated in 2002. 

“I can’t hire more Secret Service agents until I get an appropriations bill passed by this Congress – and not another CR for a couple of months,” Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee. 

House Republicans’ targeting of DHS for more restrictive funding is the latest blow to a mammoth government agency suffering from low morale and buffeted by criticism of wasteful spending and poor accounting practices.

From $1.5 billion in cost overruns on its new D.C. headquarters, to $8.7 million a year in unearned employee overtime, the department has frequently been accused by watchdogs for fiscal mismanagement and lax oversight. A recent government audit cited the agency for 68 financial problems. Another survey showed that the unwieldy homeland security department is plagued by what The Washington Post described as longstanding “debilitating morale problems” that have worsened during the Obama administration.

Related: Secret Service Head Resigns After Multiple Lapses of President’s Security    

Johnson, the chief author of Obama’s executive order, had been summoned by the GOP-dominated committee for a tongue-lashing over the executive order two weeks ago. Earlier in the day, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) denounced the president’s order as “a serious breach of our Constitution – it’s a serious threat to our system of government.” 

Johnson, however, also warned lawmakers about putting the department on a strict fiscal diet just when it needed to launch key hiring and training initiatives. Those include further tightening of border security and addressing major Secret Service security breaches, including one that allowed a fence jumper to make it to the doorway of the White House’s Green Room before he was tackled. 

“We’ve got some homeland security priorities that need to be funded now,” Johnson said.

He stressed the need for more funding to underwrite the cost of enhanced border security, but indicated he can’t do it if his spending levels are frozen at last year’s levels.

Related: Republican Boehner Tries to Avoid Spending Fight on immigration   

“I’m not going to sit here and declare we have a secure border,” he said. “We can do better.”

However, a spokesperson for House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY), who has embraced the approach, disputed Johnson’s claim the CR would cause major security problems.  

“We do not agree with his assertion,” said Jennifer Hing, the House committee’s communications director. “A CR simply continues funding levels as they currently exist. The Department of Homeland Security has existing authority to transfer funds around to various accounts should the need arise.” 

By law, Congress must pass a dozen annual appropriations bills to keep the government running and then send them to the president for signature. Yet with Congress crippled by partisan gridlock, lawmakers have regularly turned to continuing resolutions – short-term stopgap spending measures – to keep some or all government agencies operating.

Only four times since fiscal year 1977 has Congress approved all regular appropriations bills in time for the start of the new fiscal year. In all other cases, Congress had to pass at least one continuing resolution to keep the government running until action on the regular appropriations bills was completed, the Congressional Research Service reported.

Related: 68 Ways Homeland Security Has Wasted Your Tax Dollars   

A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) concluded that partial-year CRs create great uncertainty for departments and agencies. Unlike annual appropriations bills, CRs don’t establish definite funding levels even for the months they cover. Instead, it’s the final appropriations legislation that controls total spending for all 12 months of the fiscal year – whatever the amount is.

“If an agency has been operating at last year’s level under initial CRs but the final appropriations legislation makes a cut, the agency will have to absorb that cut in whatever time remains in the year,” wrote David Reich of the CBPP. That may delay announcements of procurements and grant competitions, he added, as well as reduce the time for reviewing contract proposals and grant applications.

An analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee of the potential impact of a CR on defense, for example, shows these possibilities:  

  • Readiness: Operation and Maintenance programs that fund military readiness would be cut by billions.
  • Israeli Cooperative Programs: Iron Dome anti-missile funding would remain at FY 2014 levels, which is millions less than the defense bill.
  • Competitive Space Launch: A CR would take millions away.
  • CVN 73 USS George Washington: There would be no funding to modernize the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.  
  • Major Modernization Programs: Without an omnibus, the KC-46A Tanker program would have no production funding and would break the contract at the fault of the U.S. government, adding hundreds of millions to the program’s cost.

The adverse impact of the threatened CR on Homeland Security operations overall could be substantial, especially if Congress keeps the department on short-term extensions the rest of the fiscal year.

The GOP spending strategy likely will be approved by the full House next week and then sent to the Democratic-controlled Senate for action.

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