The Department of Homeland Security came under fire at a congressional hearing on Tuesday for bloated payrolls, misleading statements about the sequestration, and failing to prepare adequately for the impending budget cuts.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held the latest in several hearings to review executive agencies’ implementation of the recommendations by their inspectors general. This hearing focused on the Department of Defense and the Department Homeland Security.
The sequestration cuts loomed over the hearing, even though Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) noted at the outset that the hearing was not about the mandatory cuts that went into effect on March 1. Some congressmen sought to disparage the cuts while others looked to the agencies for better ways to manage the reductions.
Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) zeroed in on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). He questioned Homeland Security Under Secretary for Management Rafael Borras about the department’s sizable payrolls and asked why it is not shuffling resources around to compensate for the budget cuts. TSA has almost 66,000 employees and 10,000 administrators, he said.
"This is one of the most shameful things I’ve seen any agency do, and you are bloated beyond control," Mica said.
"We never intended Homeland Security to bloat to this extent," he said.
Rep. John Tierney (D., Mass.) noted that Congress should have anticipated the massive growth of the TSA, but also said Congress should assume some responsibility.
"Congress spends the dime," he said.
Mica also highlighted wasteful spending in his opening statement. He named several programs, including a $141,000 Chinese research program that "has to be absolutely essential to the continuation of the Republic as we know it."
The congressmen also questioned Borras over DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s exaggerated statements about the sequester. She claimed that lines at major airports were 150 to 200 percent longer than usual, a claim Borras himself threw into doubt when he said there have not been any major effects of the sequestration thus far.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) questioned Borras about why Homeland Security released 10 "level one" offenders in preparation for the sequestration. Gowdy said it costs the department $122 per day to hold a level one offender, defined as an aggravated felon.
"Could you not find $12,000 somewhere else in the DHS budget other than releasing level one aggravated felons as part of your cost-saving measures?" Gowdy asked. Borras conceded, under pressure from Gowdy, that DHS had sufficient funds to pay for retaining these felons.
"Don’t act as if you didn’t have any choice but to release aggravated felons," Gowdy said.
The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) chief told another House committee at about the same time on Tuesday that he could have sought other ways to save money besides releasing over 2,000 detained illegal immigrants, 10 of whom were the level one offenders that Gowdy brought up. ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R. Ohio) criticized Homeland Security’s inadequate preparation for the sequester. The department waited about a year after the sequester became a possibility before starting to plan for it, and it still has not responded to an inquiry from Issa into how the committee and Congress can help the department better implement the budget cuts.
"It seems to me if you had 20 months to prepare for this, and the chairman asks you how we can help you better implement it, you should have something to email right away," Jordan said.
Issa noted that the Department of Defense was the only agency to respond to his inquiry with specific suggestions.
The Department of Defense’s Joint Strike Fighter project also came under scrutiny in the hearing, especially from Democrats. Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (Md.) expressed indignation that the project would cost more than one trillion dollars over ten years.
Department of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale testified that the fighter is needed to update the military’s aging airplane fleet. Issa encouraged Hale to change the way the military approaches such appropriations in the future.
Hale also said some of Congress’ actions hurt the department’s effectiveness and ability to cut money. Continuing Resolutions prevent money from being appropriated in the right amounts, and Congress has overridden some of the department’s proposed cuts to programs.
The Department of Homeland Security faced scrutiny late last year for bloated and wasteful spending.