Lawmakers rip DHS grant cuts, consider reorganization

Several senators joined Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairwoman Susan Collins in condemning the administration's proposed reductions in homeland security grants to state and local governments during a hearing yesterday.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, House Homeland Security Committee chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) used a subcommittee hearing to pave the way for a merger of DHS's Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies.

State and local agencies have used some of the federal government's homeland security grant funds'amounting to about $14 billion since the department's inception'for IT such as advanced communication gear [See GCN story].

This year, the administration has proposed a $425 million reduction in homeland security grants and a new method of targeting the funds at high-risk zones. Senators from small and rural states complained that the risk-based approach threatens their states' funding allocations.

'All states must receive a fair share of funding, and that funding must be delivered in a way that allows the states to apply it with the flexibility local circumstances require,' Collins said. The Maine Republican has joined with several other senators to introduce the Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act, S 21. The bill would strengthen standards and oversight of homeland security grants and bar the administration from eliminating some grant programs that were in place before the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

Collins said her state would suffer a grant reduction of 80 percent under the administration's proposed fiscal 2006 budget. 'That's not just a small drop. That's a leap off a cliff,' she said.

Incoming Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff defended the administration's approach of allocating grant funds according to the risks and consequences of potential terrorist attacks. In response to a volley of questions from Collins and other senators, Chertoff emphasized that his newly launched review of department operations would evaluate the matchup of risks to grant funds.

'I don't want to focus on where we have the money now, where we have the jurisdictional lines now, but rather, where are the actual threats and where are the actual consequences and vulnerabilities,' Chertoff said.

On another issue, Collins challenged Chertoff on why DHS needs three separate, round-the-clock watch centers: the main Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC), the National Infrastructure Coordination Center and the National Cyber Security Division's cyberwatch center. She said the three centers collectively would receive $82 million under the 2006 budget proposal.

'Do we really need three separate, round-the-clock centers? Wouldn't it be more efficient and save scarce dollars to have one consolidated center?' Collins asked.

Chertoff defended the separation of the centers based on their different roles. 'They are distinct, and even if we moved all the centers into one building, we would have to triple the size of the building,' he said.

The infrastructure and cybersecurity centers deal with specialized issues that the HSOC does not handle in comparable detail, Chertoff said. 'I think it's prudent to keep them in separate places, because if something happens and you get a power failure or a computer crash, at least you have not taken down your entire management structure,' he said. 'You've got a certain amount of redundancy built in.'

During a simultaneous hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Integration and Oversight, Cox raised questions about 'whether DHS has organized itself and is managing its immigration enforcement and border security resources in the most efficient, sensible and effective manner.' Lawmakers and witnesses weighed the benefits of merging CBP and ICE, which some witnesses said had been separated for political reasons.

'Anecdotal evidence suggests that the division of customs and immigration inspectors from their related investigative colleagues may be building administrative walls, and hampering cooperation and information sharing, between ICE and CBP in critical mission areas,' according to Cox. The division of functions may be causing 'needless administrative overlaps, programmatic turf battles, mission gaps and sometimes-dangerous operational conflicts,' he added.

The subcommittee heard from an array of homeland security policy analysts, federal employee union leaders, and former border and immigration officials who, on the whole, either supported the idea of merging the two agencies or stated that a merger would not impede border and immigration security operations.

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