The House Committee on Homeland Security this week reviewed the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Fiscal Year 2018 budget request of $44.1 billion, a $2.8-billion, or 6.7-perent, increase over the FY 2017 budget. Among the committee members’ overwhelming bipartisan concerns directed to DHS Secretary John Kelly focused on the consequences proposed federal assistance grant cuts will have on the nation’s security.
Although committee chair Michael McCaul (R-TX-) said Congress ultimately supports the reauthorization of DHS and approves of the $270 million increase in national security, other committee members expressed concern over the $958.6 million reduction in federal assistance grants in the FY 2017 budget.
Both Republican and Democratic committee members questioned Kelly throughout the hearing on how DHS will continue ensuring its mission to protect Americans while the Trump administration wants to cut grants to a variety of programs and resources, including police and other first responder functions and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pre-disaster efforts.
Several committee members also raised concerns over the administration’s proposed potential 75 percent decrease in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Visible Intermodal Prevention and Reponse Team (VIPR); the proposed 20 percent reduction in science and technology research and development — including a $144 million cut in cybersecurity research — and a 25 percent reduction in state homeland security and urban security initiatives.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said the current proposal will cut $667 million from federal grant programs.
In response to the committee’s regard to the proposed grant cuts, Kelly said told lawmakers he hopes state and local governments will allocate money to support security prevention and response efforts.
“Some of the grants have been reduced by a certain amount of money, and the idea is that the states would put their own money against it to sustain,” Kelly said.
Kelly said after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the grants were initially used to “help municipalities train for these kinds of threats” and to purchase equipment needed to respond to security risks. He said the US is at a different point than it was on 9/11 –- a claim many veteran intelligence and counterterrorism officials have repeatedly told Homeland Security Today just isn’t true given the growing terrorism – especially radical Islamist terrorism – threat the US and West now faces.
“We’re in a sustainment phase in which they’ve bought the equipment they think they’ve needed, they’ve done the training, and at this point the thinking is … that the states, the municipalities would pick up the sustainment,” Kelly added.
Again, counterterrorism and preparedness authorities disagree, warning a lot more preparation is required, noting there are still widespread unprotected critical infrastructure across the nation – some crucially vital to the nation’s security and economy.
In response to committee member John Rutherford (R-FL) asking how DHS will maintain and improve its technology and cybersecurity in face of science and technology cuts, Kelly said DHS will turn towards private research and commercial laboratories developing and purchasing their technology as a cost-saving measure.
A recurring concern posed by several committee members involved the administration’s proposed construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border, citing that the redirection of financial resources allocated towards federal assistance grants towards the wall construction will weaken TSA security, cybersecurity protections and law enforcement capabilities.
Peter King (R-NY) said the New York Police Department has more than 1.000 officers working full-time on federal responsibilities concerning terrorism and intelligence, and has prevented 15 to 20 attacks over the last 20 years. He added that because of the contribution of local law enforcement to security efforts in the face of impending grant cuts, he was hesitant to support the proposal.
Kelly clarified other issues during the hearing, including how DHS is not actively prioritizing the deportation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) registrants; that DHS will be able to fill its many senior position vacancies; and that there are no plans to expand the returning-worker cap on H2-B visa workers. He also stated DHS has not chosen a plan for the administration’s proposed border wall and that it will not cover the entire border, given that lengths of the Southwest border are so remote — or terrain so rough — that a wall will not be necessary due to the low rates of illegal crossings in these.
However, Kelly conceded high-traffic areas will have to have stretches of the administration’s proposed wall erected and reinforced by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and additional personnel from the Crew Vetting Program (CVP).
Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said of the FY 2018 budget request, “The heinous acts of terror carried out last week in Manchester and London should remind us of the security vulnerabilities of public places and ‘soft targets’ here in the United States. Yet, the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security cuts more than $800 million in grant funding for state and local first responders to prepare for major disasters and emergencies. The budget proposal zeroes out DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism efforts to combat radicalization and homegrown terrorism. This approach is nothing short of penny wise and pound foolish.”
“At the same time, the Trump administration is requesting dramatic funding increases for CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that do not proportionately reflect the agencies’ demonstrated needs,” Carper noted. “While the proposed budget includes $1.5 billion for immigration enforcement and $1.6 billion to begin construction of the border wall, it cuts funding for a vital transportation program that helps keep Americans safe and secure at airports and transportation hubs. This narrow focus on removing undocumented immigrants, including those who pose no threat to public safety, and on building an exorbitantly expensive and ineffective wall comes at the cost of other major security priorities and, ultimately, Americans’ safety.”
“I look forward to hearing from Secretary Kelly about this budget proposal and its impact on DHS’s core mission to keep Americans safe and secure.”