Appropriators look to hit DHS where it hurts

Congress is moving to clip the wings of the Homeland Security Department's CIO and punish the department for ignoring demands from lawmakers for information.

Legislators say they want to bring DHS in line with the routine practices of other agencies by forcing it to give Congress mandated information'a process that agency officials have yet to master, according to outside experts and department officials.

DHS' own organizational problems could be hampering its response to the lawmakers' demands, and Congress itself could prefer to threaten punishment rather than to actually withhold resources from frontline homeland security employees, the analysts said.

The legislators threatened to cut or withhold hundreds of millions of dollars until the department shapes up.

In an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that Congress sent to President Bush for approval last week, and in a DHS spending plan drafted by a House subcommittee, congressional leaders lambasted DHS for flouting their instructions.

The House Appropriation Subcommittee on Homeland Security also threatened to withhold more than $485 million if the agency doesn't provide important information on programs in a timely manner.

The $82.04 billion emergency supplemental appropriation for fiscal 2005, HR 1286, is intended mainly to pay for continuing military operations overseas, as well as tsunami relief. But lawmakers took advantage of the fact that the bill is 'must-pass' legislation to add several provisions affecting DHS technology.

For example, the bill's authors expressed Congress' displeasure with how some DHS officials paid for IT projects.

'The department has used the working capital fund for projects and activities about which Congress has not been informed or for which Congress has not provided appropriations,' according to the report.

This was one of a number of areas where lawmakers expressed frustration.

A senior DHS official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that many of DHS' first political appointees, whose ranks have been dramatically thinned by resignations, came from industry. They had little understanding of how laws control government in ways they do not control businesses.

'That is a complex process,' the official said. 'Into this complexity walks a brand new department, DHS. So this is a teething problem for the department.'

Jim Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, 'There is always a struggle between Congress and the executive branch about who's going to be directing a department's activities. The last thing you want to do [as an executive branch official] is anger the appropriators.'

The conferees for the supplemental bill pointed out that DHS has paid for the Homeland Secure Digital Network, one of the department's key IT backbones, with working capital fund money. They ordered DHS to stop doing that until the proper appropriations committees clear an official reprogramming request. The legislators also demanded an analysis of whether and why HSDN is better than alternative technologies.

The emergency supplemental legislation withholds $5 million for salaries and expenses in the department's CIO office 'until the CIO submits an expenditure plan for information technology projects funded by the CIO or funded through the use of reimbursable agreements [with other agencies].'

Lawmakers scolded DHS for failing to ask Congress for permission to reprogram funds, accusing the department of 'ignorance of budgetary rules, an arrogance in program implementation and a serious attempt by [department officials] to ignore statutory intent.'

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security was even harsher in its 2006 DHS appropriations bill markup early this month. They cut more than $485 million from the administration's request 'because we did not get the information we needed to make informed decisions about programs and operations,' said committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

CSIS' Lewis said that Congress typically requires a large number of reports from federal agencies as a means of overseeing programs and intervening in them. Agencies typically take such congressional requests, especially from appropriations committees, quite seriously, said Lewis, a veteran of the State and Commerce departments.

'You would think after four years, [DHS] would have done a better job,' Lewis said.

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