House panel approves DHS management changes

A House panel approved more than a dozen measures Wednesday intended to reform and strengthen management practices at the Homeland Security Department.

The House Homeland Security Management Subcommittee approved the 2006 Department of Homeland Security Management and Operations Improvement Act, which is still in draft form.

Debate erupted, however, over an amendment that would have required the department's bureaus of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be merged, and another amendment that would have strengthened protections for DHS employees who report wrongdoing. The amendments were ultimately withdrawn.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., led opposition to the amendment that would have strengthened protections for those who report wrongdoing, claiming that whistleblowers are treated like celebrities and get book deals.

The act will now be sent to the full House Homeland Security Committee for consideration.

It would require the department's undersecretary for management to provide specialized procurement training to employees responsible for contracting, authorize a 25 percent increase in the number of trained canine detection teams and allow DHS agencies to employ retired personnel as teachers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

It would limit to $150,000 the amount that can be spent on hiring, training and equipping each new Border Patrol agent, and authorize the department to conduct a competitive sourcing study to compare the costs of training new agents at a nonprofit or private training facility.

The act also would require DHS to establish a database of small and disadvantaged businesses capable of providing services during major disasters, take steps to improve emergency planning and response for persons with disabilities, and establish a National Homeland Security University.

The act further would require the department's inspector general to review all contracts for the Secure Border Initiative if they are worth more than $20 million.

And it would establish a Policy, Planning and International Affairs Directorate within the department, elevating the chief of that directorate from an assistant secretary to an undersecretary.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., introduced an amendment that would have merged CBP and ICE. He and Souder both said patience is running thin in Congress with the department's inability to resolve problems between the two agencies.

The DHS inspector general issued a controversial report in November citing numerous problems with CBP and ICE and calling for the two agencies to be merged.

"I do not believe further study is necessary," Meek said.

Souder added: "It's only getting worse."

The amendment was ultimately withdrawn, however, after subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., agreed to hold a hearing on the subject with the heads of ICE and CBP, employees at the two agencies and the department's inspector general. Meek said he is willing to give the department "one last chance."

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced an amendment that would have strengthened protections for DHS whistleblowers.

Souder and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., strongly opposed the amendment. They agreed that whistleblowers need stronger protections, but said they favored legislation that strengthens protections in a uniform way across government.

Souder and Davis are on the House Government Reform Committee, which has already passed a bill to strengthen protections for employees covered under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. Critics note, however, that the bill fails to provide protections for employees at national security and intelligence agencies, who are not covered by the 1989 act.

Souder said he has not seen whistleblowers panhandling for food, and described them as media stars.

Markey expressed concern that the House Government Reform Committee might not send a final bill to the House for consideration, adding that the House Homeland Security Committee has oversight responsibilities for DHS whistleblowers.

But Markey ultimately withdrew his amendment, saying he wanted the full House Homeland Security Committee to hold hearings on the subject.

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