The 250,000 employee Department of Homeland Security has a spending problem. And it isn’t just because Congress and President Obama are at an impasse over a bill that could partially shut down the agency.
Plans to build a headquarters complex for the department on the grounds of a former psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington are more than $1.5 billion over budget and 12 years behind schedule. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and senior officials are proposing changes in the plan that they claim would lower the overall cost from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion and speed up the timetable for completion of the project by five years, to 2021.
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Members of Congress have heard similar promises before. And given the current tensions between Republicans and President Obama over simply passing legislation to fund the department through the remainder of the fiscal year, it is not likely that the Republican-controlled Congress will agree to fund the roughly $2 billion more needed to complete the construction project.
Last September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a 77-page report detailing mismanagement of the project saying agency officials aren’t following leading best practices for capital decision making and reliable cost and schedule estimates. Moreover, the GAO recommended that Congress make future funding for the project contingent upon DHS and the General Services Administration developing new plans that follow the established guidelines. “The truth is that DHS and GSA don’t have any idea how much [the project] will cost or when it could be finished,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency, said at the time.
Yesterday, DHS officials promised to save money by reducing the project’s size by nearly one million square feet, making better use of existing space and allowing more employees to telework. The changes were outlined during a briefing of the House Homeland Security Committee. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who chairs the committee, and other Republicans were cautiously optimistic about the new approach, according to The Post. He said that DHS must carry out the GAO’s recommendations and develop contingency plans in case things go awry again.
However, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that the controversy over funding the headquarters project must be viewed in the larger context of the battle over funding of the department’s operations for the remainder of the year. “It’s difficult to be optimistic as Congress has been holding up full-year funding for the department for months,” he said.
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Unless Congress and the administration strike a deal within the next week or two on a $40 billion DHS spending bill through the remainder of the fiscal year, the department will begin shutting down non-essential activities beginning Feb. 27. Senate Democrats have been unified in their opposition to the Republican approach passed by the House that would provide money to keep the department open but block implementation of Obama’s executive actions exempting nearly 5 million illegal immigrants and their children from deportation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) essentially threw in the towel after failing three times to push the House-passed spending bill through his chambers, and urged House Republicans to reconsider their insistence on preserving the immigration language in the spending bill. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and rank and file conservatives insist that the Senate has no choice but to pass the House version.
“I love Mitch,” Boehner told reporters, even as he turned aside calls for the House reconsidering its action. “The House did its job,” he said. “Now it’s time for the Senate to do their work.”
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