DHS Secretary Johnson baffled by ‘absurd’ budget conversation

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Senate had passed its version of a DHS funding bill on Wednesday. This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Senate cleared a procedural hurdle Wednesday that could lead to a final vote on the bill as early as Thursday.

Secretary Jeh Johnson and his allies may have helped get through to Senate lawmakers when it comes to fully funding the Homeland Security Department. But he’s still perplexed by the absurdity of having to spend his day convincing the rest of Congress to fund his agency.

The Senate now plans to vote on a ‘clean’ funding bill for DHS — one that does not include language which would reverse the President’s executive actions on immigration. The legislation cleared a procedural hurdle Wednesday by a vote of 98-2 and a full vote on the bill could come Thursday. It’s still unclear, however, how the House would react to such a bill from the Senate.

At a press conference Wednesday morning well before the Senate’s vote, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he’s waiting for the Senate to act, but didn’t offer any insights into whether the House would entertain a clean DHS funding bill.

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“The House had done its job to fund DHS and to stop the President’s overreach on immigration, and we are waiting for the Senate to do their job,” Boehner said. “Until the Senate does something, we are in a wait-and-see mode. Our staffs have been talking back and forth, but at the end of the day, the Senate has to act. I’ve made it pretty clear over the last couple of weeks I’m waiting for the Senate to act. I don’t know what’s the Senate is capable of passing and until I see what they will pass, no decision has been made on the House side.”

Boehner wouldn’t answer the question about whether he’s prepared for a partial DHS shutdown. Funding for the agency runs out at 12:01 a.m. on February 28.

In the meantime, Johnson and two former DHS secretaries made the case for Congress to stop playing politics with the agency’s funding.

“So here we are in the midst of the debate about whether DHS should be funded past this week and in these challenging times right now, it’s even absurd to be talking about this,” Johnson said Wednesday during DHS’ Strategic Industry Conversation conference in Washington. “The American people should be very concerned that the homeland security of this nation could shut down Friday at midnight. If that happens, 30,000 people in our workforce will be furloughed. Approximately, 75 to 80 percent of our people will be required as essential government personnel to come to work without pay. All of you here in the private sector just spend a moment asking yourself what would happen in your own workforces if you had to tell them ‘I am making you come to work, but I’m not giving you a paycheck, and I cannot tell you when you will get a paycheck.’ It’s an unfair position to put the working men and women in our department in who have to make ends meet for their families.”

Johnson said it’s not just the 30,000 employees who will be impacted. He said payments to contractors will not happen and any vendor dependent on appropriations to pay their contracts also will be sent home.

The trickledown effect of the partial shutdown will be felt in the state and local government and law enforcement organizations as well.

DHS already can’t provide grant assistance for non-emergency situations, which many local police and emergency departments depend on, and disaster relief payments also will stop because DHS can’t process them.

“In these challenging times when we are concerned about terrorist organizations such as ISIL, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and so forth, and we are in the midst of harsh weather, it’s even absurd to be having this conversation,” Johnson said. “It’s even absurd that I have to spend a very, very large part of my work week simply defending paying out people to work.”

In addition to non-essential personnel, DHS programs, such as those focused on cybersecurity or Secret Service reforms, also would slow down or stop altogether.

Johnson spent the day on Capitol Hill convincing lawmakers why a clean bill makes the most sense.

At the center of the debate is President Barack Obama’s executive actions around immigration. House lawmakers included provisions in the $39.7 billion funding bill passed by the lower chamber to defund all nine areas the immigration actions address.

Johnson said this also included funding for more border security and agents on the southern border, a pay raise for immigration and customs officials and improving the process to deport known illegal immigrants who are criminals.

Former DHS secretaries Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge Wednesday joined Johnson in pushing Congress to pass a clean full-year funding bill.

Ridge said even though he disagrees with the President’s actions on immigration, attaching it to DHS funding is not the right approach to solving the disagreement.

“They may not like what has transpired, but the solution that they seek, in my judgment, is unfortunate from a policy point of view. It’s wrong and it’s folly,” he said. “We would no more ask the men and women in harms’ way in Afghanistan or the 3,000 boots on the ground combating ISIL to go out to provide safety and security in the interest of national security without pay. I think it’s an appropriate analogy. There are many people in many departments and organizations in this government that have the responsibility of our safety and our security. They wear the uniform of public service. We would no more think of not funding our soldiers. But these are soldiers, they wear a different uniform, but the goal, the mission and the objective is the same; keep America as safe and secure as possible.”

Chertoff added all of this shutdown talk is distracting DHS employees from doing their job and that, in itself, is impacting homeland security.

In the meantime, Johnson said he’s trying to prepare DHS employees and contractors as best as possible. He said DHS sends daily emails highlighting the latest in the funding debate.

“We did a press conference with the senior leaders of DHS. Craig Fugate is very upset about all of this. He’s very much into advocating for full funding of our department. Craig Fugate is a national asset because of his leadership of FEMA. I asked him why he was so upset about this, and he said, ‘I feel as if my people are being treated as pawns as if they don’t matter,'” Johnson said. “I think it’s important that we continually get information to our workforce. We’re in the midst of planning right now for a possible shutdown. We’ve gone through the list of who can be furloughed, and who has to come to work. We’ve begun informing people of that on an informal basis because I think they are entitled to know what is going to happen next week in their daily lives, so we’ve begun that process.”

One industry source said they have been talking to colleagues at DHS and they are told that all DHS employees are really doing is preparing for the shutdown.

The shutting down and bringing back up of the agency is an expensive, time consuming and detracting issue.

Chertoff said a shutdown, a partial or total one, would have a huge impact on the entire department and across the government.

“There will be some people, about 15 percent, who will be sent home. And although they may not be the people at the tip of the spear, they are the people who are providing the administrative support, the managerial support, working on the acquisitions and helping to deploy the equipment. All of which is necessary to support the people who man the front lines,” he said. “Having a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security is going to cause a lot of pain and a lot of difficulty for American citizens as well as for the hundreds of thousands of people who work for DHS.”

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