Lack of senior officials at Homeland Security stymies Congress

Created only months ago, the House and Senate Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittees nevertheless have hit the ground running with a flurry of hearings, with members saying that the only significant impediments they face are those posed by the Bush administration.

The Homeland Security Department has yet to fill many senior level positions, so the subcommittees still lack some of the information they need to write their bills.

In particular, appropriators say they have not received budget justifications, or have received incomplete justifications, from several agencies within the department, including the sprawling Transportation Security Administration.

Budget justifications explain the thinking behind the administration's funding requests and how it plans to spend the requested funds.

In fact, House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., ended a hearing on the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection budget request after giving his opening statement because the bureau had not submitted its budget justifications. The bureau has since done so.

Vacancies at many important posts in the department, including in the budget and legislative affairs offices, have prevented committee members and staff from forging the working relationships necessary to ensure clear communication between the homeland security panels and the Homeland Security Department.

But subcommittee leaders say they understand the enormous task the administration faces in pulling together 22 different agencies with different cultures and missions into one entity.

While the creation of the Homeland Security Department is the largest reorganization of the federal government since the Defense Department was assembled more than 50 years ago, Rogers said, "I think it's a lot more complicated and difficult to achieve."

So far, the subcommittees have experienced few bumps in the road internally, although the House and Senate Appropriations committees did get into a spat initially when House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., reorganized his panel to create the subcommittee, but failed to inform Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, before the new structure was made public.

The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate panels all say they work well together and have assembled a knowledgeable and experienced staff.

Rogers is teamed up with ranking member Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn. The two were chairman and ranking member respectively of the Transportation Subcommittee in the last Congress and already enjoy a rapport, both said.

In the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also is the chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Full committee ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., serves as the subcommittee's ranking Democrat. The two have nothing but compliments about each other.

And just having worked together on the homeland security portion of the fiscal 2003 war supplemental, subcommittee members have already had what amounts to a dry run to prepare for writing their stand-alone 2004 bill.

"I think it's like a ship," Cochran said of the experience. "You take it on a shakedown cruise [to work the kinks out], but the ship is operating. Now we're into the deep water."

Nevertheless, they have run into a few problems-such as the $900 million shortfall TSA is now trying to plug, potentially with money appropriated for other uses. Several subcommittees have reprimanded TSA in the past for how it manages its budget.

Another wrinkle concerns whether 2003 funds appropriated to the constituent agencies before the department was operational are being used for their intended purposes-as required by the law establishing the department-when they are transferred to the department's control.

But subcommittee members say their primary hurdle to clear is how much they still have to learn.

"We're on a terribly steep learning curve," Rogers said. "But then again, no one really thought about homeland security before [Sept. 11]-here are so many legitimate demands, it's really been a crash course for us to figure out what the needs are."

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said: "The bigger challenge is trying to find out who is in charge of what and for what purpose. The phrase to use is 'getting a grip.' But so are the guys sitting at the witness table, so I don't feel so bad."

In the category of minor irritants, Rogers said his subcommittee has been "bouncing around from one hearing room to another" because it does not have a permanent room. But Rogers was quick to add, "We've come a long way, and I'm really pleased about where we are."

Ironically, Rogers initially opposed the creation the department he now funds and oversees. "I voted against creating the department," he noted, "and I'm trying to prove myself wrong."

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