DHS shutdown, furloughs dominate subcommittee hearing

The House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies hosted a hearing Thursday to review the emerging threats and technologies facing the nation.

But, the one threat that dominated the discussion was whether the Homeland Security Department would be funded after Feb. 27. That’s when the current continuing resolution that’s funding the agency expires.

President Barack Obama signed the Fiscal Year 2015 “cromnibus” appropriations bill (part omnibus and part continuing resolution) in December, which provides funding for most agencies. The only exception was DHS, which is funded through Feb. 27. Republicans hoped to use the agency as a wedge to roll back the President’s immigration policy

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, sat in on the subcommittee hearing. He pointed out that only 16 calendar days and five legislative days remain until the DHS ceases to be funded.

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Thompson rattled off a short list of how the potential shutdown would impact the agencies’ activities, including:

  • “Shuttering the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), which would no longer alert and coordinate with law enforcement agencies and withholding the securing of cities’ grants that pay for the critical nuclear detection in cities across the country;
  • “Halting research and development work on countermeasures to devastating biological threats on nuclear detection equipment and on cargo and passenger screening technology;
  • “Also, crippling FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) preparation of future disasters and furloughing 22 percent of FEMA’s personnel, as well as ending FEMA’s training activities with local law enforcement for weapons of mass destruction events.
  • “Also, some of DHS’ employees would continue to work in the event of a shutdown. They would be forced to do so without pay, creating a significant distraction in dealing a tremendous blow to a department with already low morale.”

In addition, Thompson said, DHS employees who would be asked to work without pay would include 40,000 border patrol agents and customs and border patrol officers; more than 50,000 TSA (Transportation Security Administration) aviation and security screeners; more than 13,000 immigration and customs enforcement agents; more than 40,000 active-duty Coast Guard military members and more than 4,000 Secret Service law enforcement agents and officers.

Three scenarios for the DHS budget

William Painter of the Congressional Research Service’s Government and Finance Division told the subcommittee that the current DHS appropriations debate could play out in three ways.

First, Congress could pass another continuing resolution. DHS has been operating on a series of CRs that provide temporary funding at a given rate of operations for part of the year.

“To preserve congressional prerogatives, Congress generally places several restrictions on the use of funding provided under an interim CR,” Painter said. “These include a prohibition on the start of new projects; prohibiting funding decisions, including grants that would impinge on Congress’ final funding prerogatives and allowing only the most limited funding action permitted in the resolution to continue the government’s work.”

An agency operating under an interim CR faces significant challenges.

“A CR may provide funding at a higher or lower rate than needed to carry out departmental priorities,” Painter said.

Under the current CR, for example, DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate is receiving more funds than are needed for construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. At the same time, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) is receiving funds at a lower rate than is necessary to purchase radiation detectors for DHS personnel who scan cargo entering the country.

“This mismatch is not on the basis of an affirmative policy decision by Congress,” Painter said. “It is simply because those programs’ needs changed from the previous year’s baseline and the funding stream did not.”

In the second scenario, Congress could enact a full-year FY 2015 annual appropriations bill.

“This would allow DHS to carry out its mission with transparent and explicit direction from Congress in terms of funding levels for its many missions,” he said. “DHS would be able to hire staff, initiate new projects and award grants within the parameters laid out in the enacted legislation and accompanying explanatory statement.”

In the last scenario, no legislation would be passed by the Feb. 27 deadline and DHS would face a lapse of annual discretionary appropriations. This would force the agency to implement a shutdown furlough like the one that occurred governmentwide in October 2013 when Congress failed to reach a FY 2014 budget agreement.

“This would represent a disruption in DHS operations and raise obstacles to efficient management and oversight, much greater than those raised by an interim continuing resolution,” Painter said. “In 2013, roughly 85 percent of the department’s functions continued during the shutdown, but 96 percent of S&T, 95 percent of DNDO and 43 percent of NPPD (National Protection and Programs Directorate) staff were furloughed.”

DHS personnel who would continue to work during a shutdown include those whose work is exempt under the Antideficiency Act or is not funded through one-year appropriations.

“As it faced the 2013 shutdown, DHS identified several activities that would be subject to furloughs and curtailment of activities under a lapse of annual appropriations, including all non-disaster grant programs, NPPD’s Critical Infrastructure Protective Security Advisor program, the Chemical Site Security Regulatory program and research and development activities,” Painter said. “As the underlying laws that determine who is furloughed and who is exempt have not changed, one can expect a similar result in the event that FY 2015 appropriations lapse.”

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