Congress tightens reins on DHS IT

While lawmakers have en-dorsed secretary Michael Chertoff's reorganization plans, appropriators canceled spending for some key parts of it.

Legislation aims to tether spending, strengthen borders

Porous borders and balky Homeland Security Department technology programs came under fire in a spending bill that House and Senate appropriators have sent for floor approval. Their version of HR 2360 imposes tight oversight of the department's technology programs and bumps up spending for IT to block illegal immigration.

The conference committee cleared $30.8 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2006, $1.2 billion more than the administration's request and $1.1 billion more than in 2005.

The appropriations committees highlighted their increases in spending for border control technologies and staff, which they boosted to $5.9 billion, $378 million above the administration's request.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) reflected the border security concern in a statement on the committee's action: 'Finally, we have now gotten legislation to the Senate floor that genuinely recognizes the scope of the [border security] problem and commits serious resources to deal with it. There's still much to be done, but this bill represents a quantum leap toward the goal of restoring the rule of law along the border.'

Congressional staff members pointed to reports that preventing illegal immigration is a very popular issue with voters as a motive for the border IT spending boost.

The appropriations committees delved deeply into the department's technology agenda, inserting provisions calling for the panels to approve spending plans and technology outlines before projects can advance.

The appropriations bill also is crafted to reflect the departmental reorganization that resulted from secretary Michael Chertoff's second-stage review.

But as lawmakers endorsed Chertoff's reorganization, the appropriators canceled some key parts of it in the spending legislation. For example, their draft bill hobbles the new Screening and Coordination Office by forbidding the department to transfer the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System program to it, as Chertoff had planned.

White House priority

The administration said in a July Statement of Administration Policy that the Screening and Coordination Office 'is important to developing a comprehensive approach to terrorist screening that supports homeland security'in immigration, law enforcement, intelligence, counterintelligence, and protection of the border, transportation system, and critical infrastructure.' But without the U.S. Visit program, the office will have less effect on border protection and control.

'Its always bad to have Congress micromanage like that,' said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'But there is a lot of frustration with the department's apparent lack of progress across the board. Meanwhile, Chertoff is being saddled with the previous regime's sins.'

Lewis echoed the congressional staffers' statements that immigration control is a hot issue.

'I have heard from a number of people that concern about immigration problems is what members are hearing from their constituents'that's the big issue,' he added.

To push customs and border technology forward, the appropriations committees cleared $456 million for automation modernization. They also added other sums throughout the bill to buttress border control'for example, $10 million for remotely piloted vehicles to monitor border areas.

The appropriations bill includes $31 million for the Border Patrol's America's Shield Initiative, a project to deploy integrated sensors and control stations along the border. Earlier this year, DHS technology leaders delayed the ASI so that the procurement plan for the technology could be improved.

The appropriators' engagement in the details of DHS technology spending was especially on display in their language approving $297 million of spending for the department's CIO office.

The bill's CIO office spending paragraph includes requirements for two extensive reports, in two months and six months, on the details of projects that the department seeks to fund with the money. The reports must include an enterprise architecture, a capital investment plan for implementing the enterprise architecture and capital planning controls, according to the draft law.

The Senate and the House still must pass the conference committee's version of the legislation before passing it on to President Bush to be signed into law.

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