The House Homeland Security Committee hosted a hearing Thursday morning to discuss “The President’s FY 2012 Budget Request for the Department of Homeland Security” with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The Congressmen in attendance were Peter King (Committee Chairman) of New York, Dan Lungren of California, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Michael McCaul of Texas, Gus Bilirakis of Florida, Bennie Thompson (Committee Ranking Member), Loretta Sanchez of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Yvette Clarke of New York, Laura Richardson of California, Danny Davis of Illinois, along with freshman Members Chip Cravaack of Minnesota, Patrick Meeham of Pennsylvania, Ben Quayle of Arizona, Scott Rigell of Virginia, Billy Long of Missouri, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Blake Farenthold of Texas, Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Hansen Clarke of Michigan, and Bill Keating of Massachusetts.
While much of the recent debate in Washington has concerned spending levels and a possible government shutdown, the point of this hearing was for Members of Congress to have a public dialogue with the Secretary of Homeland Security about budget priorities. How does she plan to use the money?
The hearing started earlier than initially scheduled (9:30 instead of 10:00) because the Secretary was called to a 12:00 meeting with President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The room was filled with government officials and Congressional staff, not to mention a full lineup of Congressmen eager to ask questions.
While this was not a specific immigration and border security hearing, the issue was a prominent topic for numerous Members of Congress. Among non-immigration questions, Members asked about airport security, first responder grants, FEMA, cyber security, and bio-terrorism. Unfortunately, the Secretary is a professional politician and was prepared to provide only the answers she wanted the public to hear, notable success stories rather than areas of difficulty.
Chairman King opened the hearing with a concern about cuts to border protection, visa analysis, and overall budget priorities. Secretary Napolitano assured the Chairman that most of the cuts related to construction and building maintenance and that the President would continue his “historic” border security efforts with 21,370 border patrol agents, 21,186 CBP officers, and $242 million in border surveillance technology. She went on to mention that the President supports efforts to “streamline” the immigration process, continue workplace enforcement, maintain 33,400 detention beds, remove over 200,000 criminal aliens, prosecute egregious employers, expand E-Verify, and provide for immigration integration.
Chairman King followed up by asking about visa applications and visa security programs. Secretary Napolitano emphasized the need for a layered approach to secure visas while welcoming foreign students and other visitors.
After Ranking Member Thompson asked questions about cargo screening, Dan Lungren used his question time to ask why the Administration was emphasizing cyber security instead of customs and border control. Cyber security funding received a boost in the President’s budget while border security remained the same, if not actually cut in some areas.
Secretary Napolitano replied that:
your question presumes that the GAO (Government Accounting Office) report is correct and that the President’s budget is not the most aggressive in history in respects to the border. Operational control in the report has a very narrow definition.
Furthermore, she said the United States has more border patrol agents at the border than any time in our history, which may be true, but I wonder how many of those agents are actually patrolling the border. She also said she was concerned about funding reductions which don’t help the current border security expansion. In other words, she is saying that the Republicans’ back to basics fiscal policies will be her scapegoat for future border security problems.
After Mr. Lungren, the next pertinent question came from Mike Rogers of Alabama who went back to the topic of “operational control” that he emphasized at the February 15 Subcommittee hearing. He read the definition found in the 2006 Secure Fence Act which says “the term `operational control' means the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”
Mr. Rogers then said Chief Fisher of the U.S. Border Patrol provided a different department definition at the Subcommittee hearing and asked why there was a difference. Secretary Napolitano replied that “you’ll find that in federal law there are different definitions for different things as far as security is concerned.” She said we are making progress and that the Department wants to continue that progress. Rogers then suggested that the Department stick to the legal definition.
Rep. Rogers then moved away from his questioning to ask the Secretary to provide an immigration judge for Alabama to prevent moving aliens to New Orleans for processing. She expressed support for the idea and was committed to working with the Department of Justice on the issue.
As usual, Sheila Jackson Lee went on to express her support for comprehensive immigration reform (amnesty), but the Secretary didn’t respond and stuck to her answers regarding border security funding.
Henry Cuellar asked about detention beds and the Secretary responded by saying that the Department needs 33,400 detention beds to support alien removal and that cuts in the number of beds would actually be cutting funds from troops in the field.
Scott Rigell of Virginia told Secretary Napolitano about a sheriff in his Congressional District that told him ICE doesn’t respond to detained illegal aliens. The Secretary responded by saying that “with 8 to 12 million people in the country illegally, the cost limits us to removing 400,000 annually” and that “over 200,000 were criminal aliens.”
When it was Jeff Duncan’s turn to speak he mentioned the connection between Hezbollah and the drug cartels south of the border and expressed concern for maintaining true “operational control” of the border. Secretary Napolitano said, “I’ve worked that border as a prosecutor, governor, and now a Secretary since 1993. I have a lot of years of experience with that border” and that “the point is we have a pathway forward on that border,” but implied that budget cuts were impeding that plan. She said, “we all share the same goal; a safe and secure border,” but emphasized that Mexico is the largest trading partner for 23 states.
When Blake Farenthold spoke, he asked about the recent border agent shootings and the Secretary responded by saying that we need to properly support our agents and work with President Calderon of Mexico. However, I’m not really sure how much help the Mexican President is worth, especially to security. He is too busy trying to hold on to his own country.
Around 11:30, the hearing was ready to close so the Secretary could make her meeting with the President. Nevertheless, her testimony provided subtle insight to the Administration’s agenda to attack funding cuts from all sides of federal government even though defense and homeland security had the most modest reductions. It’s also clear that there is a real problem with defining “operational control,” which seems to be a systemic problem from the top down. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how much money the taxpayers throw towards border security if the Administration doesn’t make it a priority.
JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Cheif Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA