Gen. John Kelly, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Homeland Security Department, sailed through his nomination hearing Tuesday afternoon with relative ease, earning praise from nearly every member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Kelly, a four-star retired Marine general, said he’s ready to step out of retirement to lead DHS. And as the former leader of the U.S. Southern Command, he said he’s poised to borrow many ideas he’s seen work well at the Defense Department and apply them to a complex department of 22 components and more than 240,000 employees.
That approach will likely touch many aspects of DHS and its mission, from cybersecurity to the department’s continued push to dissolve longstanding stovepipes and unify its components.
“We all have our traditions and ways of thinking and doing business, and we didn’t have to give that up when went to jointness,” Kelly said of DoD’s own efforts to unify. “There’s a place for that. I know that Secretary [Jeh] Johnson has already done that. I’m going to get smart about that as fast as I can. The mission is homeland security, that’s a mission, I believe, everyone can get behind. Just like [at] DoD, the mission is defend the nation abroad, primarily. I don’t know if there’s been enough of that.”
Kelly said he was interested in learning more about Johnson’s Unity of Effort initiative during future department briefings and appeared open to the possibility of continuing such a program.
Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) left much of the questioning to his members but strongly urged Kelly to continue Johnson’s concept of “unity” and extend it to all aspects of the department.
“He led the Unity of Effort, and I appreciate the fact in your answers that you also are committed to that Unity of Effort,” the chairman said. “It’s extremely important. We would like to see a unity of your responsibility reporting to Congress as well. I know it’s a real snarl here, all these agencies with different committees. We’ll do what we can to at least streamline that so you can concentrate on your important mission.”
To no surprise, the committee had plenty of questions for Kelly on border security, counterterrorism, immigration and cybersecurity, but it didn’t shy away from questions related to management reform and employee morale at the department.
“While we’ve all talked often about some of the issues at the border — which are serious — there are some internal things that are undone,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said during the hearing. “While you’re focusing on some of these other areas, I would encourage you to assign a deputy to finish the unfinished product of how we handle acquisitions, the cost overruns and how we handle HR within DHS.”
Kelly agreed and said he planned to hire new talent — and retain some existing personnel — to continue current Johnson’s work on those issues. The department should look to DoD as an example and build on its acquisition workforce corps, he added.
Kelly also suggested that some organizational changes could come to DHS to make the department more efficient, a point that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the committee’s new ranking member, stressed.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) echoed her point and recommended a top-down review of the department.
“Some of the senators and others have recommended to me some organizational changes, personnel changes, not individual people, but … why does this person have this many undersecretaries or assistants,” Kelly said. “[I’ll] take a look at all of that. There’s probably efficiencies there and savings there.
The committee seemed impressed with Kelly’s 40-plus years of military experience. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, along with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who all introduced the nominee, said Kelly’s leadership experience would serve him well at a complex organization like DHS.
“The success of any organization I’ve ever been a part of or witnessed is almost always [due to] enlightened leadership,” Carper said. “John Kelly is a leader.”
Kelly not only indicated what his leadership style will be be, but also how he expects others in the department to act.
“For anyone who works … in the federal government, but certainly at the senior level, [it’s about] people … who know what they’re doing, understand the importance of following the law and understand the importance of taking care of their people, people who will listen to their subordinates when there are suggestions of how to do business better, listen to their subordinates when there’s more serious problems and not retaliate against them when they come up and raise issues,” he said.
Several members also pointed to low morale across the entire department, where employee engagement scores improved slightly in 2016 for the first time after six consecutive years of decline.
“It’s critical that we pay attention to the workforce,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), ranking member of the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee, said.
She and many others on the committee said they were particularly concerned by Customs and Border Protection’s challenge in recruiting and retaining talented agents on the border.
McCaskill and Johnson both said they believe Kelly should receive full Senate confirmation, if not on day one of Trump’s administration, shortly after.
“Gen. Kelly gave great answers today,” McCaskill told reporters after the hearing. “He didn’t do what a lot of nominees do that we’ve seen over the years, that they try to side-step questions and not answer them. He was really straightforward and I can’t think of an answer that I disagreed with.”