With cuts to TSA and DHS grants, senators concerned 2018 budget focused on ‘shiny object’

The Homeland Security Department is one of a few civilian agencies that could see one of the biggest budget boosts in fiscal 2018, according to the president’s budget proposal.

But some senators — many of them Democrats — say the increases come at the expense of cuts to other DHS components and grant programs, which they see as valuable tools in responding to threats at United States ports of entry and smaller-scale incidents in their constituencies.

“I’m concerned that these priorities are not getting the attention they deserve, especially in light of what’s going on around the world,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said during a June 6 hearing on the DHS budget request. “We may be focused on a shiny object, which has come to be known as the travel ban. Instead, we need to be focused on how many people we have … in terms of being able to identify, track and prevent these terrorist attacks.”

President Donald Trump requested $44.1 billion in discretionary funding for DHS in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal, as well as an additional $7.4 billion for emergencies and disasters in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would see the bulk of the additional funding.

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The president’s proposal does, however, suggest a $500 million reduction to the Transportation Security Administration. Specifically, it eliminates the Law Enforcement Officer Reimbursement Program, which helps deploy law enforcement agencies to secure local airports.

The budget reduces the TSA Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams from 31 to eight. It cuts both the transit security and port security grant programs in half.

These reductions will, in part, fund other budget proposals to hire and train 500 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new ICE law enforcement officers, plus additional 600 support personnel to handle new priorities along the southern border.

“We’re being asked to fund additional border patrol agents and air and marine officers, but there’s no provisions in the budget for additional CBP officers,” McCaskill said. “The difference in terminology is very important.”

According to the National Treasury Employees Union, CBP would need an additional $350 million in the next year’s budget to reach the agency’s own staffing target of 24,214 officers and begin hiring 2,107 more officers to meet its workload model.

NTEU represents CBP officers, agriculture specialists and trade enforcement specialists at U.S. ports of entry.

Yet DHS Secretary John Kelly said local law enforcement is in a different place than it was when the department was first formed 15 years ago. DHS has spent roughly $45 million to help local law enforcement hire additional personnel and acquire new equipment.

“In a perfect world, I’d love to fund everything,” he said. “But 15 years on, we are in a different place locally and federally in terms of protecting the homeland.”

Federal grants have already helped local law enforcement offices better handle threats now than they have in the past, Kelly said. It’s up to those state and local agencies to continue their success.

“We’re at the point now where much of that effort is already accomplished and we’re in the sustainment phase,” Kelly said. “States and local governments now need to sustain what we’ve helped them [with] the equipment and all that we’ve helped them get to. There aren’t unlimited resources.”

Yet many senators say local law enforcement in their states has told them otherwise.

“You need ongoing resources,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said. “We have an enemy that’s evolving. The notion that just because we’ve made improvements since 9/11 [and] we can absorb this kind of drastic cut is really just a false notion.”

Yet committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued that the DHS budget has grown significantly in the past 10 years specifically to address emerging threats.

“We don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, but we have dramatically increased the resources of this department,” he said.

Transparency

Kelly said he’s made it a priority to be more responsive to Congress and made witnesses more available.

Before his initial nomination hearing before the committee, Kelly said he heard from both senators and members of the House who told him that DHS was the worst department to communicate with.

Media reports have said the White House has told agencies to respond only to requests from committee chairmen.

“There have been folks that have been frozen out by different agencies,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “That’s inappropriate. Whether you’re on that committee or whether you’re a member of Congress, oversight is our big job. I appreciate you not doing that, and I hope that policy continues.”

DHS has made more than 37 appearances with 57 witnesses at congressional hearings since Kelly took on the secretary’s job. The department has engaged with Congress with 973 times so far, he said.

“We’re going to make that better,” Kelly said of the department’s responses to Congress. “First of all, we’re leaning forward. Regardless of who the letter comes from — and it doesn’t have to just come from a ranking member or chairman  — we’ll respond to any congressional inquiry.”

Kelly acknowledged that some of the congressional inquires are long and DHS staff can’t respond right away. When that happens, Kelly said his staff will call the senders and give them an estimate of when they can expect a response.

St. Elizabeths

The president’s budget includes $85 million in funding for DHS to continue consolidating and moving component agencies to St. Elizabeths in Washington.

Kelly said he’s recognized the need to consolidate most of the department in one location. The move will not only save DHS billions of dollars over the next several years, but it will also increase productivity and improve time management.

“It takes me a half an hour from where I sit most of the time to meet with CBP or ICE or whoever and obviously a half an hour to get back,” he said. “Sometimes I do that two [or] three times a day. It kills either my time management or their time management. I do the best I can not to inconvenience the people who work for me. It would be an advantage to be more or less in one place.”

There are some issues Kelly sees with potentially moving hundreds of employees to St. Elizabeths, but said the department could resolve them.