I attended a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing today on the FY 2007 DHS budget request which had Sec. Chertoff as its sole witness. It provided an interesting preview of the fight ahead on DHS’s budget as well as the general outlook toward the Department in the Senate today.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the chairman of the subcommittee, begans his remarks by criticizing the Administration’s general approach toward homeland security and describing it as a “stepchild to naitonal defense.” He noted that the proposed TSA fee increases were a “non-starter,” and commented on how that creates a $1.6 billion hole in the DHS budget – a hole that was filled last year by extra funds, which he said wouldn’t be possible in this constrained budget environment. He lamented the fact that the current FY 2006 supplemental bill contains funds for Iraq and Katrina – but nothing for homeland security. He questioned why TSA was singled out for user fees, asking Chertoff somewhat rhetorically whether there should also be “toll booths at the borders.” And he seemed to favor separating FEMA from DHS, arguing that emergency response activities in the wake of Katrina were distracting the Secretary and his team from terrorism prevention.
The ranking member of the committee, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), had very strong words for Sec. Chertoff, commenting that when it comes to DHS, he “feel[s] like throwing the book down and saying to hell with it,” and that “there’s nothing secure about this thing.” He described an “odd complacency” in the budget, and criticized the cuts in homeland security grant funding and the levels of funding for port security, noting of the amounts requested by DHS, “if that’s robust, then I’m a 810-pound giant.”
The tone of the hearing confirmed my sense over the past few weeks that this is going to be a very difficult budget cycle. The fallout over Katrina and the Dubai ports issue have created a season of discontent on Capitol Hill about DHS, which could lead to a greater variance from the budget request in the appropriations bills than in previous years. And the divergence of opinion between the House, Senate, and Administration could lead to delays in passing the homeland bill – a likelihood exacerbated by the probable delay this spring in the passage of the budget resolution.